By JOHN PEPIN
For The Daily News
MARQUETTE - Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials took testimony in Marquette Tuesday - almost exclusively from critics - on a Rio Tinto proposal to modify its air quality permit for the Eagle Mine.
The recorded comments will be used along with written submissions, allowed until Monday, to help regulators decide whether to approve the permit alteration, deny it or approve it with amendments.
Rio Tinto has made several changes at the mine since its original air use permit application was approved in 2007. Some of the modifications listed by the DEQ included eliminating on-site ore crushing, adding an enclosed aggregate storage building and eliminating a fabric filter dust collector.
"From the very beginning, we were looking at low levels of emissions at Eagle Mine. Through a series of design modifications, we've significantly reduced our estimated maximum emissions," said Rio Tinto spokesman Dan Blondeau. "We're always looking to improve our operations and we've made significant enhancements to Eagle's design, which are good for our employees, the community and the environment."
Blondeau said some of those improvements included eliminating underground emissions sources and improved dust management underground, paving the access road to the mine site and funding the upgrade to the electrical power grid, replacing three generators from the original design.
Vince Hellwig, chief of the DEQ's Air Quality Division in Lansing, will make the decision on the draft permit. Hellwig was in Marquette Tuesday to listen to testimony.
Emily Whittaker of Marquette was among several speakers who did not want Rio Tinto to remove the dust collector. The mining company claims the air pollution control filter on the mine ventilation stack is no longer necessary.
"There is no real need to remove the bag house other than to save money and they have the money to do it," Whittaker said. "The bag house was a stipulation of receiving the air permit in the first place so we again urge you to keep them on their word."
Whittaker said in a recent advertisement, Rio Tinto described the amount of air coming out of the stack at the mine, but not the concentration of air pollutants.
Gene Champagne of Big Bay said he didn't have much confidence in computer modeling of potential air pollution from the mine.
"It's what you put into the model that it spits out whatever you put into it," Champagne said. "If those figures going in are inaccurate, then what's coming out is going to be inaccurate."
He said some studies he's read have shown 50 percent or more of computer modeling has been shown to be faulty in mining projects.
Champagne said there will be impacts from the mine's air emissions outside the fence. He challenged the regulators' term "significance" related to the mine.
"Anything industrial that happens on the Yellow Dog Plains is significant because there has never been an industrial operation out there since time began," Champagne said. "So if this was Detroit, Los Angeles or Flint, maybe it isn't significant, but it is significant there and it is significant to the people out there."
Amy Clickner of the Lake Superior Community Partnership said the group "has been a strong supporter of Rio Tinto's Eagle Mine project, believing that any company that meets and exceeds regulatory and legislative standards has the right to do business in our community."
"As an economic development organization, we understand however, the importance of the balance of environmental stewardship and economic activity," Clickner said. "We understand the changes being requested in this new permit - including the change in the bag house application. We strongly support the approval of Rio Tinto's permit and we urge you to take all appropriate action necessary to move this forward."
Jon Becker of the Superior Watershed Partnership said the group recognizes the revised permit represents a reduction in potential emissions, but said "there are a number of items MDEQ should consider from a regulatory standpoint prior to issuing a permit."
Among them, Becker said meteorological data used for all of the modeling and potential environmental impacts was based on regional National Weather Service data in Green Bay, Wis., and other places.
"This methodology ignores sight specific data that has been collected by Rio Tinto since 2007," Becker said. "This data should be incorporated in order to create a more accurate model of (pollution) dispersion and deposition."
Other speakers wanted air quality baseline data collected before mine operations begin, stricter pollution controls required or had concerns about the effects of water on pollution at the mine.
Roughly 60 people attended the hearing.