State - Traverse City Court asked to overturn U.P. mining permit Some fear mine's ceiling would collapse beneath Salmon Trout River

By John Flesher

AP Environmental Writer

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- Four groups have filed a lawsuit hoping to overturn a state permit for a nickel and copper mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, saying the project does not meet legal requirements for protecting the environment.

The opponents said Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co.'s application didn't prove the project would avoid damaging rivers, groundwater and other natural resources in the Yellow Dog Plains region of Marquette County, an undeveloped area prized for its woods and streams.

They particularly fear the mine's ceiling could collapse beneath the nearby Salmon Trout River, a Lake Superior tributary home to the rare coaster brook trout.

"The evidence is compelling, the facts are strong and the law is squarely on our side," Michelle Halley, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, said Monday. Also joining the suit are the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Huron Mountain Club.

The circuit court lawsuit was filed in Washtenaw County, where the wildlife federation's Great Lakes regional office is located.

The project was approved Jan. 14 by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, since renamed the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

"This permit already went through one of the most intensive review processes the state has ever done, a process that was designed to ensure this mine would ultimately operate safely," DNRE spokesman Robert McCann said.

Company officials say the mine would be operated safely and the ceiling would be secure. They contend it would boost the local economy, employing about 200 full-time workers and an additional 500 contractors during construction.

"Kennecott remains confident in our legal position and that it will prevail," the company said in a statement.

The mine would be the only one in the U.S. where the primary mineral is nickel, used in a wide variety of products such as stainless steel and batteries.

Kennecott, a subsidiary of London-based Rio Tinto PLC, is targeting a six-acre underground deposit expected to yield 250 million to 300 million pounds of nickel and about 200 million pounds of copper.

The project is the first proposed in Michigan since the Legislature enacted a deep-shaft sulfide mining law in 2004. The DEQ adopted regulations for such mines two years later. Shortly afterward, Kennecott submitted its application.

Several other companies are prospecting sites in the Upper Peninsula, which once had a booming copper and iron mining industry. Just two iron mines still operate there.

The Kennecott case will establish precedents for future mining proposals, Halley said.

It "sets the bar for what the application looks like and the measures of protection that have to be in place at a mine site," she said. "Thus far, the DEQ has not required adequate applications, much less that there be adequate protections."

McCann said the regulations set high standards and Kennecott "was able to achieve them."

Before starting construction, Kennecott must obtain a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to discharge treated wastewater underground. EPA officials said this month they still were reviewing the company's application.

Published: Wed, Mar 17, 2010