MARQUETTE - The Superior Watershed Partnership's Community Environmental Monitoring Program - which will independently evaluate the environmental impact of Rio Tinto's Eagle Mine - came under fire during a community forum Thursday in Marquette.
Jon Saari, a member of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, said the program provides an open door for Rio Tinto to begin earning the trust of the local community, a trust he doesn't believe the company deserves.
"They are cheering this. This is their entrance into our community, and that's the price that the SWP has, in a sense, paid, and I hope the substance of it is going to work in our favor," said Saari, who spoke at length about the dangers he believes the mine will pose to the environment. "But the interpretation of it now has essentially given Rio Tinto a social license in our community, and they couldn't be happier with this...
"We're paying costs as a community and a region for this mine. But, it was permitted by our authorities. They have legal rights, mining rights, to do what they're doing, so we're not going to stop them, but we don't have to welcome them and we don't have to put a bag over our head and pretend this is a good thing still."
The CEMP program is funded by Eagle Mine owner Rio Tinto, which is providing $300,000 annually. The money will be allocated by a five-member board that has representation from the environmental sector, mining sector and community at large and was appointed by the Marquette County Community Foundation
"We're hoping that this will be a precedent setting model for other communities, other mines, to raise the bar for other mining companies," SWP board member Jerry Maynard told the group of about 30 people gathered in the Citizens Forum Room at Lakeview Arena.
The partnership will conduct verification monitoring of the mine, as well as the Humboldt Mill, that will offer a comparison of permit-required monitoring of groundwater and surface water quality to data collected by Rio Tinto.
The SWP will also conduct additional monitoring it determines is appropriate, conducting tests and undertaking monitoring projects as needed to formulate a complete set of data related to the mine's potential environmental impacts. Included in this is an air quality station currently operating in Powell Township, as well as the monitoring of plant life and wildlife. Monitoring of the ore transport route will also be conducted once the route is established.
All data collected will be posted on the website at www.cempmonitoring.com for the public to view. All data will also be given to enforcement agencies such as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, since the SWP can only monitor the mine's activities. It has no authority to take legal action against the mine.
The scope of the partnership's monitoring or reporting cannot be restricted by Rio Tinto, though the company will be allowed to comment on the partnership's findings. Any disputes that arise between Rio Tinto and the SWP will be resolved by the community foundation's oversight board.
Thursday's meeting was the final of four forums held throughout the Upper Peninsula on the new monitoring program. The forum was contentious at times as concerns were aired over the damage some fear will be left behind by mining operations.
Other people said the program would hold the mine to a higher standard and would help prevent extreme damage to the environment.
"More monitoring is better than less monitoring and we see it as a community service, not a service to Rio Tinto," Maynard said. "We could care less if it's successful for them. We care tremendously that it's successful for the community."
Calls placed to Rio Tinto for comment were not returned by press time this morning.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.