Ceded territories mining update
By John Coleman, GLIFWC Environmental Section Leader
Madison, Wis.—While iron mining initiatives seem to have slowed in Wisconsin recently, mining, particularly of sulfide ore deposits continues to expand in the region and large scale iron mining continues in Minnesota and Michigan. In the three-state area, several known sulfide mineral deposits are under exploration, two sulfide mineral projects are in the permitting process and one mine is currently under construction.
Kennecott Minerals' Eagle Mine on the Yellow Dog Plains is currently under construction, and drilling through Eagle Rock to the orebody has begun. The most recent development related to this project involves a proposed 21-mile road from the mine site to the Humboldt processing facility.
Kennecott originally applied for a permit to construct this ore haul road, but after concerns were expressed by regulatory agencies and the public, the application was withdrawn in 2009. Now the County of Marquette has proposed a road in the same location.
Construction of the road would involve filling approximately 24.5 acres of wetlands and crossing 22 streams and would provide a direct haul road connection between the Eagle Mine and the Humboldt Mill. Kennecott's Humboldt Mill, where ore from the Eagle Mine would be processed, is currently under investigation by EPA's Super Fund program because of existing contamination.
In March Kennecott Minerals released their 2011 Annual Report for the Eagle Project. It is available at: http://www.lic.wisc.edu/glifwc/Kennecott/ydog/
Orvana Minerals Corporation has applied for permits to develop an underground copper mine, called Copperwood, near Lake Superior and the Presque Isle River in the western UP. GLIFWC staff commented on the permit application, emphasizing concern that Orvana does not propose to backfill the mine. This would cause surface subsidence of approximately 7 feet and leave a 350-acre tailings pile. Staff are also concerned about long-term discharges to Lake Superior from the tailings pile and from the mine workings, which would be approximately 200 feet from the lakeshore. GLIFWC staff submitted information to the Army Corps and EPA related to the status of streams and wetlands at the site and the presence of over 100 old unplugged borings at the site. The Michigan DEQ has made a proposed decision to issue the mining permit and has included a list of conditions on the permit. It will make a final decision on the mine permit in May.
Orvana has also applied for a surface water discharge permit and wetland and stream fill permits but the Michigan DEQ has not yet determined that either of those permit applications are complete. When the applications are determined to be complete, there will be a public hearing and comment period. Tribal staff met with EPA staff in February to discuss those permit applications. In January staff visited the Orvana site along the shore of Lake Superior and identified groundwater fed streams and seeps. The observations made in January became the impetus for additional comments to the EPA and the Army Corps on streams at the proposed mine site.
GLIFWC staff continue to assist the Fond du Lac tribe in its role as a cooperating agency in the preparation of a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Polymet Northmet project. In 2010 EPA gave the first draft of the project EIS its lowest possible rating, prompting the Army Corps and the State of Minnesota to gather additional data and perform additional analyses for a revised draft.
Work proceeds and staff continue to raise relevant concerns, including providing comments on the socioeconomic analysis being prepared for the project, and the adequacy and accuracy of baseline data characterizing groundwater contribution to river flow. Those comments include recommendations on hydrologic model calibration and sensitivity analysis.
Other sulfide mineral mine projects under development in Minnesota include the Teck Mining Company site immediately northeast of the proposed Polymet project, and the Twin Metals deposits on the shores of Birch Lake and the Kawishiwi River. These are in advanced stages of exploration and are expected to apply to the state for permits within the next year or two.
A continuing concern at the Kennecott Flambeau Mine site has been the "Industrial Outlot" which has been producing runoff contaminated with metals since at least 1999. Three remediation plans for the site have been previously implemented. In 2011 a fourth plan was proposed and is being implemented in 2012. A Clean Water Act citizen's lawsuit is underway over the discharge of pollutants to a water of the United States at the Flambeau Mine site.
Legislation to separate ferrous and non-ferrous mining regulations in Wisconsin failed to pass the Wisconsin Legislature, which adjourned on March 17, 2012. GLIFWC and a number of its member tribes opposed the bill and provided information and testimony to the legislature that described their concerns. In the wake of the legislation's failure, the company proposing a new iron mine in the Bad River watershed in Ashland County announced its intent to abandon their proposal and leave the state.
Exploration drilling by Aquila Resources for sulfide mineral ores was conducted last summer at the Reef site in Wisconsin's Marathon County and drilling occurred this past winter at the Bend and other sites in Taylor County in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. More exploratory drilling by Aquila is anticipated.
Aquila Resources's primary project is on the Michigan side of the Menominee River and is known as the Back 40 project. Aquila is looking for additional precious metal ores to feed a mill they hope to build. Several exploration companies have applied to Oneida County for permits to do additional exploratory drilling at the Lynne site on the Willow River. The Oneida County board is considering those permit application and plans to hold public meetings on June 23 from 9 a.m.–noon at the Town of Lynne and 2:00-5:00 p.m. at Rhinelander.