REGIONAL—Congressman Rick Nolan has issued a sharply-worded letter to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator taking issue with the agency’s comments regarding two …
REGIONAL—Congressman Rick Nolan has issued a sharply-worded letter to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator taking issue with the agency’s comments regarding two controversial highway projects in the region. But the letter and follow-up questioning on it have revealed that the congressman’s office was lacking key information in some cases that largely addressed the criticisms he raised with the federal agency.
In his May 7 letter to Dr. Susan Hedman, Nolan accuses the EPA’s Kenneth Westlake of “overreaching and carelessness” when he suggested that MnDOT gather more detailed information about the potential for water quality impacts resulting from the excavation of sulfide ore outcrops along the proposed south route.
Westlake offered his comments in November 2011 as part of the scoping for the proposed Hwy. 169 improvements in the Eagles Nest area between Tower and Ely.
Nolan said the impact of the EPA letter “cannot be underestimated” and suggests the agency was reflecting the views of a small group of landowners along the stretch who were opposed to the highway realignment, rather than legitimate environmental concerns.
Rep. Nolan, in his letter, complains that the EPA offered no scientific evidence that the exposure of “sulfates” (the actual concern is over sulfides) had the potential to harm the public or the environment.
Yet the presence of sulfide mineralization in the Eagles Nest area has been well-documented for years and prompted MnDOT to hire geologists from the Natural Resources Research Institute to analyze the situation.
That NRRI analysis raised further concerns, and prompted a minerals specialist with the Department of Natural Resources to recommend a comprehensive drilling campaign along the proposed route in order to determine how much sulfide-bearing rock might be exposed during and after construction. MnDOT officials have estimated as much as 250,000 cubic yards of rock would be blasted as part of the southerly rerouting of the highway.
In comments submitted to MnDOT in September 2011, DNR minerals specialist Dennis Martin noted that the initial geological findings from the Natural Resources Research Institute indicate that sulfide minerals are highly variable along the proposed south realignment, but common enough and of high enough concentration to be of concern. “Ten of the set of 66 samples in or near the roadcuts have chemical assays of 0.30 percent-weight or more sulfur, which would be classified into a higher mitigation class,” wrote Martin.
Furthermore, Martin noted that the sulfide intrusions into the surrounding greenstone are “steeply-dipping” which makes it harder to determine how extensive the intrusions might be.
Martin also noted that overburden still covers most of the bedrock along the planned highway corridor and that MnDOT currently has no idea how much sulfur-bearing rock might exist in those areas. “The existing outcrop samples represent a very small percentage of the total volume to be excavated. There is a need to be prepared in case there are additional sulfur-bearing zones, or high sulfur content in these roadcuts, or below the surface of the outcrops at depth in the roadcuts.”
Then-MnDOT project manager Brian Larson had rejected the DNR’s recommendation for more extensive drilling at the time, suggesting that MnDOT had enough information from the initial surface analysis completed by NRRI. But MnDOT has since changed its perspective, based at least in part on NRRI’s technical report on the subject, issued last May. In it, NRRI geologists Mark Severson and John Heine recommended additional drilling along the southerly corridor to better determine how much sulfide-bearing rock is likely to be encountered.
“There’s no question that if we’re moving in that direction (the southerly alignment), we’ll need to do additional drilling,” said MnDOT Project Manager Michael Kalnbach.
When questioned why Rep. Nolan is targeting the EPA for criticism when state agencies and state-hired geologists offered similar advice to MnDOT, Nolan’s office indicated in a statement issued to the Timberjay that Nolan’s office was unaware of any similar concerns by state agencies or NRRI.
“No mention was made to Congressman Nolan regarding any official or unofficial involvement, analysis or comments by NRRI or Minnesota DNR concerning the sulfide issue and the route the task force had chosen. MNDOT officials we have spoken to were also unaware of any comments.”
That official statement is contradicted, however, by MnDOT officials, who told the Timberjay this week that Nolan’s office was given copies of two NRRI reports, including the one that recommends additional drilling related to the sulfide issue.
“We know about the report and they know about the report,” stated Kalnbach.
Kalnbach said he was unaware of the comment letter from the DNR’s Martin, but noted that the letter had come prior to his involvement with the project. But Kalnbach said MnDOT is well aware of the DNR’s concerns over sulfides. “We’ve met with the DNR many times about the issue and what mitigation measures we might need to follow,” he said.
Nolan’s office takes a different view, stating that “it is unlikely that the sulfide pollution associated with the 169 project, or the air quality issues associated with the preferred Hwy 53 route, would result in significant environmental impact. In this respect, it is an over reach by EPA to insert themselves into these local issues, and it is careless of them to do so without taking into account the broad public interest.”
The EPA, however, is a cooperating agency in the environmental review, and is required to submit comments as part of that process.
Hwy. 53 concerns also raised
Nolan’s letter to the EPA also objects to what he sees as interference in decision-making in regards to the Hwy. 53 project. Nolan stated that a consensus proposal, known as Alternative M-1, which would have rerouted Hwy. 53 through a recently-mined ore body, was apparently scuttled when an EPA scientist raised concerns about the air quality along the route, which was within the airshed of an operating mine and would likely not receive approval from the agency.
Nolan complained that the scientist cited a standard for continuous exposure to mine dust, apparently neglecting to acknowledge that most drivers would be exposed to those dust levels for, at most, 20 seconds perhaps once or twice a day. “It is inconceivable that even twice daily 20 second exposures would ever come close to posing a threat to human health and yet EPA would not approve this route. It is common sense to the people who live and work in this area. Why then would EPA use this argument, the result of which is to force the state DOT to find another acceptable alternative? Is this just disregard of the public interest at large, or is the agency wishing to establish a role in highway planning and engineering as well?”
Nolan plans to meet with Hedman and other EPA officials in Chicago in an attempt to resolve the issues. However, he warned Hedman that, “If EPA becomes too cavalier with regard to the comments or threats made to others on proposed projects, and fails to be flexible in finding workable solutions that are realistic and achievable, within reasonable cost constraints, the agency will continue to lose critical public support, and may find a rising public demand for their powers to be restrained by statute.”