MARQUETTE, Mich. (AP) — Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. doesn't need a federal permit to build a nickel and copper mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a letter to the company made public Friday.
EPA previously said that federal approval was required for the mine's wastewater discharge system because it would operate below the earth's surface. But the company announced a redesign in March that will keep the network of pipes above ground.
The federal permit was the last regulatory hurdle for Kennecott Eagle, which already has state permits to build and operate the mine. Drilling is expected to start next year. Rio Tinto, the mining giant that owns Kennecott Eagle, says it should begin producing minerals by late 2013.
Opponents are challenging the state permits in court, contending the mine would pollute groundwater and rivers near Lake Superior. The company said it would protect the environment.
"Kennecott takes seriously our obligation to comply with all laws and regulations pertaining to our activities, and we understand that the community must have confidence that they are being properly applied and strictly followed," the company said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat whose district includes the remote section of Marquette County where the mine will be located, said Kennecott should continue addressing concerns of opposition groups including the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
Two tribal members were charged with trespassing in May after refusing to leave the area where the mine entrance will be drilled, contending it is sacred ground.
The state should also take another look at its sulfide mining law, Stupak said.
"We are seeing today in the Gulf of Mexico why it is so important that we have effective enforcement of environmental and safety regulations and adequate financial protections in place to ensure taxpayers are not responsible for cleaning up any pollution that does occur," he said.
The company says its operation will employ about 200 full-time workers in the economically struggling region, while about 500 contractors will be hired for construction.