L'ANSE - Simon Nish, director of communities, communications and external relations for Rio Tinto asked for "respectful, robust discussion" during an Eagle Mine community forum Wednesday night in L'Anse, and he and the other nine Rio Tinto employees in attendance may have got even more than they bargained for.
What was projected to be a two-hour forum at the L'Anse American Legion Post 144 turned into nearly three hours of robust discussion about the mine.
The evening featured a 20-minute presentation about the mine; a long question-and-answer period; Rio Tinto's new community scorecard, which collected and displayed public input in live time; followed by many more questions and answers.
Stephen Anderson/Daily Mining Gazette
Jessica Koski, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community mining technical assistant, shares tribal and environmental concerns with Rio Tinto representatives during Wednesday’s forum at the L’Anse American Legion Post 144.
Eagle Mine project update presentation
Ryan Hoel, operational readiness manager at Eagle Mine, gave the presentation, and he joined the Eagle Mine team in the last two months to guide the transition from construction to operations, a process expected to take another 18 months.
"We're at a point now where we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said of the mine in northwest Marquette County, which is projected to produce 300 million pounds of nickel and 250 million pounds of copper over about a seven-year lifespan.
Compared with many mining operations, Eagle Mine is actually a relatively small output mine with a short projected operational period, but what has raised many eyebrows is that Rio Tinto plans to use it as a showcase mine to establish more mining throughout the region.
"We're looking to be here for the long haul," Hoel said.
He went on to describe Eagle Mine's safety goal of zero harm, pointing out it hadn't reached its goal due to two finger injuries suffered on-site, one in the last week. Hoel described the on-site emergency response vehicles, including an ambulance that is licensed to respond to emergencies outside the mine boundaries.
Hoel also described the company's local hiring objective, to hire 70 percent of employees and contractors from three tiers in the following order of emphasis: Baraga and Marquette counties, the rest of the Upper Peninsula and three northern Wisconsin counties, and the Lower Peninsula.
While it cannot track exactly which tier its construction contractors fall under, the current local hire ratio for Rio Tinto employees is 94 percent Baraga and Marquette counties, 4 percent in tier two and 2 percent from downstate.
Hoel also described the lay of the land at the Powell Township mine site, which is on the Yellow Dog Plains, including details about the reverse osmosis water treatment plant; and the Humboldt Mill and administrative offices, which were moved to the mill site from Ishpeming on Sept. 1.
Hoel also explained the AccelerateUP initiative, which is Rio Tinto's solution to sustaining the labor force beyond the mine's short life.
"Long after we're gone, these businesses will still be around and continue to grow," he said. "What we're trying to do is partner with a parallel economy that's separate from mining to help buffer that boom-bust cycle that you do witness or see in mining-type environments."
Hoel and Nish also explained the importance of Eagle Mine's reputation and community engagement, and Nish explained its independent monitoring system.
"What's very clear every time we talk to people is that the environment is the most precious thing," Nish said. "What we hear is that the community doesn't necessarily trust us, and the community doesn't necessarily trust the state. What we hear is the community will place more trust if monitoring is done independently.
"The U.P. should be very proud that the U.P. is setting new benchmarks in community oversight and mine monitoring," he added. "The only way we can open doors is if we do things to a higher standard and establish new benchmarks. It's intended to set the bar so we can demonstrate to other communities where we hope to develop mines in the future about the kind of mining company they can expect."
More information about the mine, including Eagle Mine's (riotintoeagle.com) monitoring structure with the Superior Watershed Partnership (superiorwatersheds.org) and Marquette County Community Foundation (marquettecountycommunityfoundation.org) can be found on the organization's websites.
Catherine Paavola, a Houghton County resident with Friends of the Land of the Keweenaw, noted that a short-term mine does not create the type of jobs the area needs.
"These are not the kind of jobs our area deserves. You wonder why Rio Tinto isn't trusted. I'll tell you why," she said, going on to describe a 72-square-mile groundwater plume from Rio Tinto's Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah. "I'm sure you told them everything you told us. There's every reason not to trust you. ... You have a lot to prove here."
Chantae Lessard, manager of community and social performance, a fourth-generation Rio Tinto employee who worked at Bingham Canyon, responded: "I acknowledge the plume. ... Those plumes were created before the EPA, before the regulations were in place, and we didn't know any better."
She went on to describe how Rio Tinto voluntarily paid to clean it up, and the current internal and external regulatory environment safeguards against such problems in the future.
When challenged by Paavola to list one example of a clean mine, Nish responded by pointing to the Flambeau Mine in Wisconsin, which despite legal action taken against it, was described by a judge as having "exemplary" environmental practices.
"It's a lie to say that was clean. Why do you think we don't trust you? You're lying!" Paavola said.
Numerous other issues were discussed during the forum, including mineral rights, explorations around the region, whether the independent monitoring was truly independent, perceived media bias and tribal issues.
"With respect to Eagle Rock, I want to give Rio Tinto a chance right now, as close to the reservation as you can get ... to clear up this," said Jeffery Loman, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member. "Water pollution at these mines is the greatest problem. So what do you do? To take the focus off water pollution, you propose to put the mine portal into a spiritual rock. Well, spiritual rocks aren't important to the majority of people in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That's a fact. So, you drive a wedge between the tribe and the environmental advocacy groups and the majority of the people in the U.P. who really care about clean water."
Nish said the portal was originally planned to go into Eagle Rock, but due to tribal concerns was moved back from the rock. It still had to go near there to access bedrock on an otherwise sandy plain, using a decline tunnel to reach the ore body, he said. The ore body could not be accessed by a vertical shaft due to concerns about the Salmon Trout watershed, which is directly above the ore body, Nish said.
Tribal members also said Eagle Mine's permits were in question, but Nish said they have survived nine challenges in court, to date.
Jack Parker, an independent mine consultant who said he has 60-plus years of mining engineering experience in about 500 mines, including teaching current Eagle Mine project director John Haan at Michigan Technological University, read a prepared statement specifically attacking the mine as fraudulent and illegal.
"Because the application for permits to mine, submitted in February 2006, was incomplete, high-school level, incompetent, fraudulent to the point of endangering life, limb, property and environment and was neither prepared nor processed as required by Part 632 - it should have been rejected immediately," Parker read. "The errors, omissions and deceptions are readily apparent to persons familiar with underground mining. It was not rejected by the regulatory (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) but was accepted without question, thus implicating that department in the fraud."
Rio Tinto said it was excited to unveil its community scorecard, which allowed the 40-plus attendees to vote with a clicker whether the mine exceeds, meets or falls below expectations, or whether they needed more information about the mine's environmental performance, safety, local hire, transparency/communication and "leaving more wood on the woodpile" (creating sustainable work beyond the mine's life).
Of the 41 respondents on environmental performance, 39 percent thought Eagle Mine exceeded its expectations, followed by 29 percent who thought it met them, 7 percent who felt they were below expectations, and lastly, 24 percent who needed more information.
On safety, the percentages were 37, 49, 12 and 2 percent, respectively.
On local hire, the votes were 20, 39, 37 and 5 percent.
On transparency and communication, 43 respondents voted 44, 19, 23 and 14 percent.
Finally, on "leaving more wood on the woodpile," 43 respondents were 19, 33, 21 and 28 percent.
"You met my expectations, but that doesn't mean I trust you," Catherine Andrews told Rio Tinto representatives.