EPA gives approval of Kennecott discharge pipes

BIG BAY, Mich. – Kennecott Eagle Minerals received a favorable ruling from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that means the mine’s redesigned plan for its wastewater discharge pipes does not require an EPA permit, although an agency official warned that it’s expected the company to continue dialogue with opposition groups to consider making positive environmental changes to the entire project.

At issue are the mine’s wastewater pipes that originally were to be covered by soil, but a new design essentially covers the pipes in a container rather than earth. The pipes remain at the same level as originally proposed.

Mine opponents said the new plan was a way to skirt the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and allowed the mine to start its site preparation work this past April – earlier than expected – because Kennecott Eagle Minerals had all the grants required for the mine thus its leasing of the land from the state of Michigan.

The ruling means the EPA agrees that the nickel and copper mine doesn’t need a permit for Underground Injection Control (UIC) to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for its Treated Wastewater Infiltration System (TWIC).

“We have reviewed the revised plans for the construction of the TWIS and agree that a permit is not required the federal UIC programs for the infiltration system as currently designed,” said Peter S. Silva, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water in a July 1 letter to manager Jon Cherry, manager of Environmental and Governmental Affairs for Kennecott Eagle Minerals.

“Based upon our review of the modified TWIS design, the lateral perforated piping that constitutes the fluid distribution system is above ground and thus is not a subsurface system,” Silva wrote.

Environment groups, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) and other tribes have been trying to stop the mine for six years because they consider the entire area sacred as its ceded land covered by federal treaties.

Silva added a warning in his letter that the EPA will be keeping a close eye on the mine.

The EPA “retains authority under the SDWA, as well as other law, to take necessary action to address possible contamination from the TWIS that may endanger underground sources of drinking water regardless of the design or the unit or its permit status, Silva wrote in his letter. “We understand that discharges from the TWIS are subject to a state permit that include monitoring and response requirements,” Silva wrote. The EPA “will continue to coordinate with the state to determine whether any federal response action with respect to TWIS is necessary.”

Silva told mine officials to notify the EPA if there are “further changes” to TWIS because if there are additional modifications the EPA “will have to reconsider whether federal UIC requirements apply.”

The National Wildlife federation, KBIC and several groups still have lawsuits pending against the mine that are being heard in circuit court.

Silva noted that the mine has “significant community and tribal interests involved” and encouraged Kennecott Eagle Minerals to continue “dialogue” with KBIC – in an attempt to resolve some of the issues associated with the proposed mine.”

“It is the EPA’s expectation that Kennecott will follow through on efforts to consider all viewpoints, and consider any appropriate environmentally beneficial changes to the project,” Silva wrote. The mine, being constructed on the Yellow Dog Plains near Lake Superior, is targeting a huge mineral-rich ore body underneath the Salmon Trout River, the only known place that species of trout reproduce naturally in North America. Based on one expert’s review of the plan, mine opponents fear the river could collapse into the mine thus triggering a large amount of sulfuric acid that could flow into Lake Superior. The mine experts disagree and say the entire project is safe. Sulfuric acid is a byproduct of sulfide mining caused when oxygen and water mix with the ore.

Ojibwa tribes are saddened because the company has bulldozed a portion of the Yellow Dog Plains including around most of asacred Eagle Rock with plans to blast through an underground portion of the sacred site for the port and tunnel of the underground mine.

Meanwhile the Marquette area Christian and Buddhist Community are organizing a day of fasting and prayer from sunrise to sunset on Lake Superior Day, Sunday, July 18, said Rev. Jon Magnuson, a Lutheran pastor in Marquette, Mich.

The interfaith event is being held by the invitation of those who live on the Yellow Dog Watershed and will be held as close to sacred Eagle Rock as possible, as the site is under the control of the mine owner.

Every three hours religious leaders will hold services and liturgies to pray for Lake Superior. Magnuson said.