TRAVERSE CITY — A coalition of environmental and community groups opposed to a nickel and copper mine under construction in Michigan's Upper Peninsula asked the state Court of Appeals on Monday to overturn a judge's approval of the project.
Four groups contend the Department of Environmental Quality should not have granted Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. a permit to build and operate the mine because it poses a high risk of water and air pollution.
They say the mine's rock ceiling would be unstable and could cave in, endangering workers and the Salmon Trout River under which the tunnel would be drilled. Opponents also say metallic dust, vehicle exhaust and other contaminants would foul the air, although the DEQ has approved an air emissions permit for the mine.
Kennecott has insisted repeatedly the project is well-designed and would protect workers and the environment. The DEQ approved the permit in 2007, a decision upheld by an administrative law judge. Opponents appealed to Circuit Judge Paula Manderfield, who sided with the DEQ last month.
"The evidence related to the likely collapse of the roof is overwhelming and that really needs to be addressed," in addition to other legal issues, said Michelle Halley, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. Other groups fighting the mine include the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, the Huron Mountain Club and the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.
Kennecott has cleared land, constructed surface buildings and begun drilling the mine entrance through bedrock in the remote Yellow Dog Plains area near Lake Superior in northwestern Marquette County. The company says production of nickel and copper is scheduled to begin in 2013.
Adam Burley, president of Kennecott Eagle, said he was disappointed the legal fight would continue.
"However, our focus remains on safety and responsibly building Eagle mine in compliance with all of the conditions of our permits," Burley said.
DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said the Kennecott permit "was issued with careful consideration and a very lengthy public process. We remain confident it will withstand appeal."
The Kennecott mine is among several planned in the Upper Peninsula, where copper and iron mines dotted the landscape a century and more ago but eventually closed except for two iron operations in Marquette County.
Orvana Minerals Corp., a subsidiary of a Toronto-based company, is seeking state permits for a copper and silver mine near Ironwood in the far western U.P. Aquila Resources Inc. and HudBay Minerals Inc., are expected to file permit applications for a zinc and gold deposit in Menominee County next year. A number of other companies are prospecting potential mine sites.
Opponents fear extracting minerals from sulfide ores will create sulfuric acid that could leak into groundwater, streams and eventually the Great Lakes. They contend the mining operations would harm plants and wildlife.
Kennecott Eagle is the first mine to be permitted under a state law enacted in 2004 and regulations adopted two years later.
"We must ensure that the law's protections of human health and the environment are honored and applied," Halley said. "So far, they have not been and that is why we are seeking leave to appeal. Many more mines are in the queue and this is a precedent-setting case."
Wurfel said the DEQ understands public concerns in view of extensive pollution from mining in bygone days — some of which is still being cleaned up. But companies have developed better technology and methods while regulations have gotten tougher, "so we feel that we're looking at a new day," he said.
The DEQ has formed a team with representatives of several state departments that will be involved in mine permits. The idea is to streamline the process without shrinking from government's oversight role, he said.
"As a regulatory agency, the DEQ's No. 1 job is to protect the environment and we remain committed to that," Wurfel said.