Friday, May 12, 2017

DEQ cites Highland Copper's wetlands, soil erosion violations from mining exploration in Porkies, along CR 519

By Michele Bourdieu

Some water remains in a ditch area between Gogebic County Road 519 and a snowmobile trail along the eastern right-of-way of the county road. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is investigating wetlands and soil erosion violations in this area from equipment used in an exploratory drilling effort conducted by Highland Copper in and adjacent to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park as the spring thaw arrived. (Michigan Department of Natural Resources photo taken Apr. 29, 2017.)

MARQUETTE -- The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Office of the Great Lakes (OGL) recently announced the importance of the month of May as American Wetlands Month.

"Healthy wetlands are now being recognized for their ecological and functional importance, and many groups at the federal, state, and local level are working to protect and restore them," notes the OGL. "As part of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s focus on protecting wetlands, the Office of the Great Lakes supports healthy wetlands ecosystems by restoring areas affected by legacy pollution, working to prevent introductions of aquatic invasive species, protecting our unique coastal environments, and promoting stewardship of our Great Lakes water resources."

The Michigan DEQ has responded to recent violations of wetlands and soil erosion statutes by Highland Copper's exploration activities in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (the Porkies).

In an April 20, 2017, press release, the DEQ states it issued a violation notice to Highland Copper Company Inc. for soil erosion and wetlands impacts at sites on road commission property along County Road 519 in Gogebic County. The violation follows environmental damage discovered in early April.*

This April 26, 2017, photo shows sediment-filled muddy water passing through fiber rolls (erosion control) on an access road left chewed up by Highland Copper's drilling equipment. Muddy water is flowing into ditches of CR-519, which convey the water to a ravine that feeds the Presque Isle River. (Photo © Steve Garske and courtesy Mining Action Group)

The notice requires Highland Copper Company Inc. to stabilize the site, restore disturbed wetlands, obtain additional permits, and investigate previously used drill sites to determine if other wetlands have been disturbed.

According to Steve Casey, DEQ Water Resources Division district coordinator for the Upper Peninsula, the DEQ violation notice requires that the company delineate wetlands and apply for an appropriate after-the-fact permit for impacting wetlands. This permit may have penalties associated with it. They must also obtain a soil erosion control permit from Gogebic County.**

John Pepin, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) deputy public information officer, said, "Highland Copper’s exploration at the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park did not cause any damage under permits issued by the DNR, which included several provisions for protection of park surface features. Highland Copper, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Gogebic County Road Commission continue to address wetlands and soil erosion concerns on road commission property, within the right-of-way of County Road 519, which were discovered in April and are currently being remedied."

Hay bales and other short-term remediation measures are in place and working along Gogebic County Road 519. This photo shows a ditched area with standing water between the county road and a snowmobile trail, along the east side of the county road. Later, long-term measures like grading and reseeding will be undertaken to help restore original surface features. (Michigan Department of Natural Resources Apr. 29 photo)

Highland Copper Company Inc. has been conducting exploratory drilling of copper minerals situated beneath the surface of a mile-square section of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State 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.*

This Apr. 26 photo shows water in a CR-519 ditch flowing north to the Presque Isle River. (Photo © Steve Garske and courtesy Mining Action Group)**

"According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s website: 'Sediment is the greatest pollutant by volume impacting our lakes, streams, and wetlands. Sediment is the product of uncontrolled erosion,'" the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC) Mining Action Group recently noted in an update on the Highland Copper violations in the Porkies. "'Erosion and sedimentation result in: loss of fertile topsoil, filling of lakes and streams, increased flooding, damage to plant and animal life, and structural damage to buildings and roads.'"**

Kathleen Heideman, board member of UPEC's Mining Action Group, commented recently on Michigan's track record in wetland protection, noting her concerns for another mining project in the Western U.P. as well.

"Michigan wetlands, especially the iconic vernal wetlands where spring peepers are now breeding and singing, are extremely vulnerable," Heideman said. "Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality has a bad track record when it comes to wetlands protection, permitting them to be drained by mining projects, obliterated by roads, and intentionally filled with industrial wastewater discharges. These threats are real. The Aquila Back Forty project, for example, recently submitted a Wetland permit application, seeking the permission of state regulators to destroy and impair wetlands at the Back Forty mine site, located on the banks of the Menominee River. Will Michigan's DEQ protect these wetlands? Or will Michigan facilitate the desires of the mining industry, and sacrifice more wetlands in the process? In honor of American Wetlands Month, the Michigan DEQ should remember that it is easy to write celebratory press releases. It is more difficult to make permitting decisions that actually protect Michigan wetlands. We must encourage them to do the right thing."

Highland Copper's exploration within and adjacent to the Porkies is part of a feasibility study related to their Copperwood mining project, located near the Porkies.

According to Highland Copper's Web site, "Highland acquired the Copperwood Project from Orvana Minerals Corp. ('Orvana') in June, 2014. The Copperwood deposit is located in Gogebic County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA within the Porcupine Mountains copper district (Figure CW 1) and about 35 kilometers west of the White Pine North Project. Copperwood is a project at the final feasibility stage. All major permits required for mining the Copperwood Project were obtained or approved in 2012 and 2013, subject to certain conditions, including providing financial assurance."***

As to whether mining could take place within the Porkies, Casey noted, "Highland is doing exploratory drilling, which is a preliminary step to determining whether an ore body can be feasibly mined. They don't even know if it's feasible yet."

Highland had indicated they planned to access the ore body under the Porkies underground from Copperwood, but Casey added the DEQ does not know enough at this time to determine what permits would need to be issued or modified should they decide to do so.

"If they want to add the additional ore body that's under Porcupine Mountains State Park, there will be multiple public meetings and a comment period," Casey said.

Notes:

* See our Apr. 7, 2017, article, "State, county officials address citizens' concerns about erosion from Highland Copper mining exploration along CR 519 in Porkies." 

** Click here to see more photos from the Mining Action Group. Click here for information on Soil and Sedimentation Control under Part 91 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), 1994 PA 451, as Amended.

*** See Highland Copper Company's description of the Copperwood project here.

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