Drilling Fix Media Show: Gazette not invited to mine company’s unveiling of drill damage repair within park

MDNR photo From left, Carlos Bertoni, executive vice president for project development at Highland Copper Co. Inc., and Tom Repaal, Highland Copper’s senior environmental engineer, discuss ongoing remediation efforts

ONTONAGON — Highland Copper officials returned to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park Tuesday to show the media the progress they’ve made in repairing exploratory drilling sites.

Carlos Bertoni, Highland Copper executive vice president for project development, said the company waited too long into spring breakup before suspending exploratory drilling operations along the right-of-way along Gogebic County Road 519, according to information provided to the Daily Mining Gazette Thursday by Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Deputy Public Information Officer John Pepin.

Highland Copper had been conducting exploratory drilling of copper minerals situated beneath the surface of a mile-square section of the park, bisected by County Road 519. Drilling ceased on road commission property on April 4, after company officials were made aware of the erosion issues through pictures posted online by a mining watchdog group.

Bertoni declined comment to the Daily Mining Gazette, which was not invited to Tuesday’s press conference.

“The event was organized by John Pepin of the MDNR, who issued the invitations,” Bertoni said, in response to our query about a Wednesday report of the event an ABC 10. “There should be a press release by the MDNR in the near future, to which I could eventually comment. On a personal level, I must say that I have not been well impressed by the Gazette reporting on our activities.”

MDNR photo A catch basin in between Gogebic County Road 519 and an old snowmobile trail in April. The basin is intended to block water and silt from entering a nearby tributary to Gipsy Creek.

However, Bertoni had told a Gazette reporter on June 20: “We will invite you to visit the site in the near future.”

Pepin said he forgot to invite the Daily Mining Gazette, which happened to be the first media outlet to publish the photos and break the story.

“I apologize for no invite from me,” Pepin said Thursday morning. “That was simply an oversight on my part. We would never intentionally slight one publication over others. That’s not how I work with people. That’s not how the agency works with people. It’s just a mere oversight.

“Highland had agreed to go out and do this thing and they had suggested a couple of media. They suggested contacting the Wakefield paper. I said, ‘OK, I’ll invite a couple other media outlets,'” Pepin said. “I forgot to invite the Daily Mining Gazette. I am sorry about that. It’s my fault, but it’s nothing more than an oversight, nothing more intended. I’m glad you called to let me know.”

The company is working with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Gogebic County Conservation District to stabilize the area along a snowmobile trail along the county road right-of-way, according to the DNR.

MDNR photo A catch basin in between Gogebic County Road 519 and an old snowmobile trail Tuesday, Aug. 8. The basin is intended to block water and silt from entering a nearby tributary to Gipsy Creek. Once remediation efforts are complete, the biodegradable holding structures will be removed. This photo shows the site from the snowmobile trail, looking toward County Road 519.

With a quick warmup in temperatures, the frost came out of the ground faster than the company anticipated and inundated the work site with mud and water this past spring, the DNR said.

On April 20, the DEQ issued a violation notice to Highland Copper for soil erosion and wetlands impacts after environmental damage was discovered earlier in the month. The notice required Highland Copper to stabilize the site, restore disturbed wetlands, obtain additional permits and investigate previously used drill sites to determine if other wetlands have been disturbed, the DNR said.

“This week Highland Copper Company took media out to the site once more, but this trip was full of apologies and explanation,” ABC 10 reported about the press conference. The television reported Highland Copper Company employees, along with geologists, engineers, and other specialists, were gathered near the south edge entrance sign to the Porcupine Mountains.

“We are here today to demonstrate, yes, one makes mistakes but one is willing to repair them properly and we will go to the full extent of rehabilitation required by the DEQ,” Bertoni told ABC 10. “We thought it would be safer for us to use the snowmobile trail for tracked vehicles, the problem with tracked vehicles is they churn the ground a lot.”

“Pink flagged areas represent wetlands,” the ABC 10 report said. “Overall 1.9 acres of wetland patches were affected. What defines a wetland?

“We are just not trying to make excuses here. It’s a complex technical definition, what is wetland,” Bertoni responded to the television reporter’s question. “We did not know this had not been mapped essentially, and we did not interrupt this as wetland, so essentially we learned in the process.”

“Vegetation, hydrology so you know where’s the water table, and the soil types,” Highland Copper environmental engineer Tom Repaal said in the television report. “So you have to pass all three of those tests and the Army Corps of Engineers has a manual they published quite a number of years ago, because this was poorly defined even 20 years ago.”

“All efforts for rehabilitation are being conducted by specialists to ensure no trace is left behind,” according to ABC 10. “Highland Copper reassured that all plants used in the restoration process are native species. Currently the four holes left incomplete will be filled in concrete come winter time.

“So we intend to go back to the DEQ and obtain another license to drill inside section five of next winter and complete that program,” Bertoni told ABC 10. “What we have been told by DNR is that they were happy with the way we drilled when we were inside the park, we left the park at the right time. We just stayed too long here drilling along the right-of-way.”

The right-of-way is for County Road 519, which runs through the interior of the park. The park surrounds all of the right-of-way land that was damaged by the drilling.

“Until the snowfall, Highland Copper is continuing exploratory drilling on company property, also known as section six,” ABC 10 reported. Section six is immediately adjacent to the park.

The DEQ said due to the severity of noncompliance with state regulations, the matter is being evaluated for escalated enforcement. The DNR maintains there has been no impact found on land that is legally part of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, since the drilling occurred on Gogebic County property beside the county road.