Rio Tinto’s Michigan Nickel Mine Introduces Citizen Water Quality Testing Program – by Codi Kozacek (Circle of Blue – January 8, 2014)

Circle of Blue, founded in 2002 and based in Traverse City, Michigan, is a non-profit affiliate of the Pacific Institute, and the premier news organization in the world covering freshwater issues

Scheduled to begin production of nickel and copper next year, the Eagle Mine is the first new hard rock mine to open in northern Michigan’s Copper Country in decades. It’s so new that Chevy pickups need Kevlar tires to prevent blowouts on the sharp edges of stones not yet worn by mine traffic.

Puncture-proof tires, though, are hardly the only distinctions that separate the Eagle Mine from others in Michigan or across the United States. Two years ago, Rio Tinto, the mine’s developer, made an unusual proposition to the nonprofit Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust, a local environmental organization.

Upended by a decade of civic protest over opening the Eagle Mine in the ecologically sensitive Yellow Dog Plains, the London-based mining company, which operates all over the world, wanted to try something very different in Michigan’s wild and water-rich Upper Peninsula. It offered to fund the Watershed Partnership to monitor environmental parameters, like water and air quality.

The idea was to build trust, and prove to critics that a modern mine—especially a so-called “sulfide” mine that contains ore capable of creating acid mine drainage when exposed to air and water—can operate within permitted requirements.

The Watershed Partnership initially rejected the offer. Taking part in such a program would be a reversal from the Watershed Partnership’s earlier stance on mining. In its 2007 Watershed Management Plan for the Salmon Trout River, which runs through mine property, the organization included a recommendation to “work with local, state and federal partners to prohibit sulfide-based mining.”

“The board was unanimous in saying no,” said Jerry Maynard, a retired corporate lawyer and board member of Watershed Partnership.

“We did not want to put our reputation at risk by working with the mine.”

An Unprecedented Agreement
After mulling the idea over, however, the Watershed Partnership made a counteroffer to Rio Tinto that predicated the group’s participation on these conditions:

  • The Watershed Partnership’s monitoring program needed to be completely independent. Mine managers could not influence when, where or how the sampling was conducted.
  • The program had to have adequate funding to ensure it was technically robust.
  • The process needed to be completely transparent.
  • Community input must be included.

“Under Michigan law, they’ve got the right to mine,” Maynard said in an interview with Circle of Blue, noting that Michigan approved the mine in 2007. “It’s going to happen. If it’s going to happen, it is better to have them monitored.”

Rio Tinto agreed to the conditions. Two legal documents were drawn up to govern the relationship between the company, the Watershed Partnership and a community foundation that would act as a “firewall” for transferring the funds.

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