DEQ reviewing final permit application for new U.P. copper mine

Dec 6, 2012

The company Orvana Resources is one step closer to getting the approval it needs to build a new mine. The Copperwood Mine is proposed for a site north of the town of Wakefield in the western U.P. The state is reviewing the company’s final environmental permit.

The Department of Environmental Quality has already given the company mining, wastewater and air permits.

Steve Casey is the District Supervisor for the DEQ’s Water Resources Division.

“We’ve reviewed the application; put conditions on the mining operation that if followed, will be protective of water and air quality and also other natural resources,” says Casey.

This final permit is the wetlands, inland lakes and streams permit.  Orvana withdrew its original application for this last permit and re-submitted it to address concerns from multiple parties.

The DEQ explains the action this way:

In response to comments from the public, Native American tribes, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and DEQ, the applicant made numerous improvements to its original submittal. The withdrawal and resubmittal of this application allows regulators to consider a single permit application instead of the original application with multiple corrected documents, and was necessary because of a pending deadline for resolving EPA concerns with the original application.

Major improvements to the original submission include:

  • An improved analysis of alternatives for reducing environmental impact, including a detailed review of the feasibility of placing tailings back in the mine.
  • Utilizing natural channel design (versus ditches) for channels diverting existing streams around the proposed tailings basin.  The new design incorporates wetland creation in the floodplain of the new stream channels.
  • Raising the height of the tailings basin to reduce its footprint.
  • Modifications of facilities to slightly reduce wetland impacts.
  • Adding two preservation tracts totaling 820 acres to the wetland mitigation plan.
  • Improving the stream mitigation plan by the creation of 10,500 feet of natural stream channel and replacement of a culvert on Two Mile Creek that is blocking brook trout passage on a tributary to the Wild and Scenic Cisco Branch of the Ontonagon River.
  • More accurately characterizing the length of streams impacted by the tailings basin.

The mine plan calls for a 320-acre tailings basin. It’s similar to a landfill that will hold water and ground up rock that the copper has been removed from.  Steve Casey says the company will build over about 58 acres of wetlands and three miles of small streams.  He says when they do that, the law requires that they try to replace the wetlands.

“The major issue yet to be resolved is what mitigation will be appropriate for the resources that will be unavoidably taken by this project,” Casey explains.

Overall, this mine has been less controversial than the Eagle Mine near Marquette.  A lot of people in the area want the mining jobs.  But environmental groups and tribes have still been voicing concerns.

Doug Welker is on the board of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition.

"The community basically is fairly desperate for any kind of economic stimulus in the Ironwood and Wakefield area, and as a result, the company's been able to push the 'jobs, jobs, jobs' argument without a lot of resistance," says Welker.

He says there are a number of issues with the mine plan that he thinks haven't been adequately addressed, including potential water pollution, possible subsidence of the ground surface and the potential for catastrophic events.

Chuck Brumleve is the environmental mining specialist for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

“The Copperwood Mine, by design, there’s a number of problems. It’s located very close to the shores of Lake Superior. It’s right on the edge of the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness Area State Park,” Brumleve says.

He says the tribes are especially concerned the mine could pollute Lake Superior and hurt the fisheries.

“We already have a problem with mercury, and fish advisories in Lake Superior; we’re all very concerned that we could be adding other metals to some of these fish advisories.”

One of the sticking points is how wastewater from the mining operation would be treated.

Dave Anderson is with Orvana.  He says the company believes their facility will exceed environmental standards.

“The wastewater treatment facility is designed for zero discharge for seven years. We know that if for any reason that facility should have any trouble, we have the ability to recycle water and hold water for extended periods of time, years, if necessary, so there’s no opportunity for an accidental release,” says Anderson.

He says, after those first seven years, the mine will release treated wastewater into a stream that flows into Lake Superior.

The mine is expected to operate for up to 15 years.

Anderson says wastewater from the tailings basin will continue to be treated for 3 to 5 years after the mine closes. After that, he says they’ll take the water out, and cap and close the basin.

Chuck Brumleve with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community says he’s concerned that if the cap on the tailings basin leaks, there could be problems.

“Anybody that knows landfills and worked around landfills that have caps on them: they don’t last forever. What happens in 50 years or further down the road, is that this thing will become a permanent source of contaminants to Lake Superior,” says Brumleve.

The DEQ has approved the company’s plan for treating the wastewater from the tailings basin – and says it’s consistent with good environmental protection.

Orvana’s final permit application is open for public comment until December 18th. If the permit is approved, and the company decides to go forward with the mine, construction could begin next year.