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Rio Tinto signs agreement with Michigan nonprofit to monitor U.P. mine

Drilling began at the Eagle Mine this past September. This aerial photo was taken in September of 2011. The mine is 25 miles northwest of Marquette, Michigan.
Kennecott Eagle Minerals
Drilling began at the Eagle Mine this past September. This aerial photo was taken in September of 2011. The mine is 25 miles northwest of Marquette, Michigan.

The Eagle Mine near Marquette is under construction. It will be mining mostly nickel and copper along with smaller amounts of other metals.

The company Rio Tinto owns the mine.  They’ve received their state and federal permits, but those permits are being challenged in court.  The mine has been divisive in the community.  A lot of people want the mining jobs, and many others are worried about the impacts the mine could have on Lake Superior and nearby rivers.

Dan Blondeau is a spokesperson for Rio Tinto.  He says the company will be spending about a million dollars on environmental monitoring that’s required by their permits.  But he says residents have been telling them that wasn’t enough.

“For the last several years, community members have told us they’d have more trust in environmental monitoring if it was done independently.”

Rio Tinto just signed formal agreements with a nonprofit group.  The company will pay $300,000 a year for independent testing around the mine area, the mill and certain transportation routes.  Dan Blondeau says this kind of agreement is a first for Rio Tinto.

“It’s really unprecedented. We have not been able to find another example of something like this in the U.S. or globally.”

The Superior Watershed Partnership is the group that will conduct the testing.

Carl Lindquist is the Partnership’s executive director.  He says the group was opposed to the mine from the beginning.  But once it was clear the mine was going forward, they wanted to be involved as watchdogs. 

“You know, mining is a big part of our history in the U.P.  So it’s been a divisive issue in the community since the beginning and this monitoring program has been one of the few things that’ve come out of the whole Eagle Mine that has generated support from all sectors.”

Lindquist says his group’s scientists will be in charge of the testing, and they’ll be using labs approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.  They’ll be taking split samples to verify the samples Rio Tinto’s workers take and make sure they’re getting the same results.  They’ll also be looking for pollutants in the air, groundwater and surface water. 

Lindquist says anybody can suggest tests they want to see done, and he says they’ll post all of their data online.  He says Rio Tinto will get a chance to comment on any tests that show a chemical is above a state or federal standard.

“That doesn’t stop us from posting anything.  But let’s say there is – I don’t want to say a violation – but an exceedance, we want to get that out as soon as possible; they do have the opportunity to provide their comment and both will be shared.”

Lindquist says one of his main concerns is making sure the monitoring is kept at arms’ length from the company.  He says to do that, the money from Rio Tinto will be handled through the Marquette County Community Foundation.  He says they’re also seeking additional funding sources.

But others are worried the additional monitoring will not be enough.

Michelle Halley is an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.  Her group is suing to challenge the company’s state permits.

“There’s just no way that $300,000 is an adequate amount of money to achieve any sort of comprehensive monitoring over that much terrain and for so many parameters.”

She says her group is concerned about the type of mining that will take place at Eagle Mine. It’s often called sulfide mining and it can produce sulfuric acid. That can be highly toxic to people and wildlife.

“In almost every location where sulfide mining has occurred there has been contamination of groundwater or surface water and usually of both.”

The company insists it can mine safely.

But there are many people watching what happens.  Rio Tinto is one of several companies planning to tap into potentially billions of dollars worth of metals in the Upper Peninsula.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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