ISHPEMING - The planned reuse of the Humboldt Mill site in western Marquette County as an ore processing facility has generated debate, but not the level of controversy surrounding the proposed Kennecott Eagle Minerals mine that would feed it.
At the Westwood High School auditorium Tuesday evening, area residents spoke for and against the plan during a public hearing on the permits required for reusing the mill site.
The hearing centered around four permit applications under consideration by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality - an air use permit, covering new sources of air emissions from the ore processing facility; a national pollution discharge elimination system permit, which covers discharge to surface waters; a nonferrous metallic mineral mining permit, because the mill doesn't fall within the area for the mine operation; and an inland lakes and streams permit for placing waste rock material in the Humboldt pit lake.
A public meeting at the Westwood High School auditorium Tuesday night on the conditions for the four Department of Environmental Quality permits to allow reuse of the Humboldt Mill by Kennecott Eagle Minerals was sparsely attended. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
"Reuse of the abandoned industrial site is an outstanding opportunity for environmental cleanup with the cost borne by Kennecott. The estimated cost for site cleanup and rehabilitation effort is over $80 million," said County Commissioner Deb Pellow, reading from a letter signed by the Marquette County Board in support of the Humboldt project. "Such a significant investment is beyond the reach of local development organizations and local governments.
"The board is confident that the strict and comprehensive requirements of all aspects of the operation ... will protect the environment."
Others agreed that allowing reuse of the mill would be a good move.
"We believe this project is an excellent reuse of an existing brownfield site. The project will provide for great cleanup at that property," said Lois Ellis, representing the Lake Superior Community Partnership. "We trust the DEQ with all their expertise and the oversight process through the permitting applications will ensure protection of our environment."
Others, however, didn't place any confidence in the DEQ's ability to monitor and control the proposed operations at the Humboldt Mill.
"Since some of us have finally caught on to the fact that we have been doing your and Kennecott's work for the last five years, I would just like to ask a few questions," Marquette resident Teresa Bertossi said. "Might disposal of tailings in a water of the state set a dangerous precedent for the freshwater bodies in Michigan? Do you think it is logical that the tailings in the waste water will actually stay in the bottom of the pit? Do you know for sure that the lake water will not turn over seasonally? Do you have data and scientific evidence that the water will not leak from the pit?"
Bertossi and others pointed to financial issues within the state and questioned whether the DEQ has the resources to adequately police the project.
"It is apparent that you have little respect for the local people, for it seems you haven't heard one word we've said in the past five years. It is also apparent that current laws are not strong enough and that they were heavily influenced by corporate interests. It is apparent that you do not have the funding or the know how to regulate metallic sulfide or uranium mining in Michigan. And it is further apparent that Kennecott has our representatives, officials and our government agencies planted in its pocket."
For many of those who spoke in support of the Humboldt project and the proposed mine, the main issue is one that the DEQ doesn't take into account in its ruling - employment. The mill could hire up to 70 full-time workers, with another 100 to 200 local construction jobs during the site reclamation and refurbishment, Kennecott officials have said.
"The jobs issue is paramount. Nothing else even comes close," said John Hongisto of Deerton. "We cannot afford to look a gift horse in the mouth. The company isn't asking for tax breaks or subsidies. They are willing to abide by strict rules. That is commendable."
"It was amazing the strides that are taken to ensure water quality," said David Heikkinen, who left the area several years ago to take a job in another mining area. "I know Kennecott has to abide by all the same rules that are in place. I would like to get back here and work in the mining or construction industry that goes along with (the mine)."
With the public hearing over, the DEQ will be accepting written comments until Dec. 29. Each of the four permits must be approved separately for the project to move forward.
"Each permit is a bit different," said Hal Fitch of the DEQ's Office of Geological Survey. "I'm going to make sure we've addressed all the concerns that have come up.
"Employment is a big issue, but we don't regulate based on employment."