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EPA officials weigh in on Eagle Rock

BIG BAY, Mich. – As the top government official who oversees Great Lakes water quality stood on the edge of sacred Eagle Rock, overlooking a pristine expanse of the Yellow Dog Plains, she gained a better understanding about why the state-owned land is sacred to Michigan’s Ojibwa.

“I very much understand what their concerns are – and that is one of the things we are considering as we moved forward on this,” said Tinka Hyde, Water Division director for Environmental Protection Region 5. “We realize that Eagle Rock is of cultural and religious importance to the tribe.”

Hyde was one of three EPA regional bosses from Chicago and the agency’s tribal liaison for Michigan who were given a tour of the area May 13 by officials from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community during a two-day visit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Members of numerous tribes including Ojibwa, Cherokee and Lakota had been camping at the base of Eagle Rock since April 23 in hopes of preventing Kennecott Eagle Minerals from building a nickel and copper sulfide mine – named the Eagle Project. At the company’s request, state and local police officers raided the encampment May 27 arresting two campers.

Under federal treaties, Ojibwa have rights to hunt, fish and gather on the state of Michigan owned land. The state leased the land to Kennecott with the understanding that all permits must be approved.

Hyde said any ruling the EPA makes about the withdrawal of state and federal permit applications by Kennecott subsidiaries will be based solely on environmental protection laws, primarily the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.

Kennecott officials are now proposing an above ground system to discharge mine wastewater thus have withdrawn their EPA permit application for underground pipes named the Treated Water Infiltration System.

The KBIC Tribal Council has filed suit against Kennecott and opposes what they describe as an effort by mine officials to circumvent an EPA permit by using insulation to protect the pipes above ground instead of the original plan to use soil – noting that mine officials admit in design plans that the pipes will remain at the same elevation.

The EPA is “evaluating how or whether the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations apply to that situation,” Hyde said of the mine’s withdrawal of an EPA permit application for an underground TWIS.

The EPA’s authority over the mine is “fairly limited in many respects,” Hyde said adding the agency’s job is to determine “whether activities planned are regulated by or meet Safe Drinking Water Act regulations” and are “appropriately implemented as to be compliant” with that law.

Meanwhile, as the deadline arrived to respond to state concerns about wetlands and other issues, Woodland Road LLC withdrew its application for a state permit to construct a $50 million 22-mile haul road to be paid for by Kennecott.

The road would stretch from the remote mine site in north Marquette County to the mine’s ore processing facility at the former Humboldt Mill.

Before it was withdrawn, the EPA and other federal agencies had filed concerns over the state permit application for Woodland Road.

“If they chose to submit a new application we (the EPA) will review the project as we have in the past,” Hyde said. A new but likely similar route is being examined to prevent about 100 rock laden trucks from a daily drive through Marquette and other cities.

The National Wildlife Federation has said the withdrawal of the two permit applications by Kennecott subsidiaries amounts to playing the system.

Led by EPA Region 5 Acting Administrator Bharat Mathur, the group was invited by the KBIC Tribal Council to visit Eagle Rock and meet with the council during a two-day (24 hours total) whirlwind tour to the Lake Superior basin area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Appointed acting region 5 administrator three years ago (May 2006), the Eagle Rock visit was Mathur’s last on-site visit as regional EPA boss because Susan Hedman took the reins of the Chicago office May 24. Hedman had served as environmental council to the Illinois attorney general and as senior assistant attorney general since 2005.

Others present at Eagle Rock May 13 were EPA Regional Counsel Robert A. Kaplan and Jennifer Manville, regional EPA Michigan tribal environmental liaison from Traverse City, Mich. Representing the tribal council were vice president Susan LaFernier, tribal attorney John R. Baker, and KBIC mining specialist Chuck Brumleve. The four EPA officials later met with the tribal council members including President Chris Swartz Jr.

KBIC wants to make “sure the groundwater is protected, the surface is protected,” Hyde said. The tribe’s concerned about “having their access to and importance of Eagle Rock and the effects of mining may have on Eagle Rock.”

During their visit to Eagle Rock, EPA officials were shown nearby streams and the Salmon Trout River, under which is located the large ore body that is targeted by Kennecott. Opponents are afraid the river could collapse into the mine and it’s the only known location in Michigan where coaster brook trout breed.

“Those small headwaters are going into smaller streams and into the Salmon Trout River,” said Hyde, adding they were given a tour of the smaller streams by well-known environmentalist Chauncey Moran, who for years has monitored and tested streams on the Yellow Dog Plains for the Sierra Club and others who have partnerships with state environmental agencies.

EPA officials did not meet with the campers or mine officials during the visit.