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Rio Tinto Eagle Mine Construction Continues After Judge Refuses To Halt Work

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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A federal judge has refused a private outdoor sporting club's plea to halt construction of a nickel and copper mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, saying the group failed to convince him that its lawsuit challenging the mine would be successful.

The Huron Mountain Club is suing to block the Rio Tinto Eagle Mine, claiming the company didn't get federal permits that should have been required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The exclusive club, which owns about 19,000 acres of forestland in Marquette County near Lake Superior, including an 11-mile stretch of the Salmon Trout River, claims the mine will damage the river and nearby wetlands.

But in a ruling Wednesday, Judge Robert Holmes Bell said the lawsuit hasn't shown that the Corps was legally obligated to require the permits, and he rejected the club's request to stop construction before trial. Bell said such a stop-work order would be appropriate only if the lawsuit had a high likelihood of succeeding.

State regulators and company officials have said the mine can be operated safely. Drilling has begun and mineral production is expected to begin in 2014.

The club filed the lawsuit in May. No trial date has been set.

Nolan Knight, attorney for club, said his team was studying the judge's decision. "We haven't ruled anything out, no final decisions as to what our next step will be," he said.

The mine, whose name was recently changed from Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co., is owned by London-based Rio Tinto PLC. A spokeswoman for Rio Tinto Eagle said the company had no comment on Bell's ruling.

The company has won a series of legal victories since the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved its mining permit application in 2007. Rio Tinto Eagle is targeting about 230 million pounds of nickel and a similar volume of copper, according to court documents. The mine would be located in the isolated Yellow Dog Plains region of Marquette County.

The company has finished building surface structures including an administrative building, wastewater treatment plant and rock storage area. About 300 people work there.

The Huron Mountain Club and other groups unsuccessfully challenged the DEQ permit before an administrative law judge and in circuit court.

In its latest suit, the club said the mine will reach beneath the Salmon Trout River, causing its water levels to drop and its temperature to change. It says the Army Corps should have ordered the company to apply for permits under the Clean Water Act and another federal law dealing with rivers and harbors.

The Corps decided federal permits weren't needed because it regulates only navigable waters and connected wetlands, and the mine is about 21 miles upstream from the river's navigable portion, according to court documents.

In his ruling, Bell said the club's lawsuit has not shown the Army Corps was legally obligated to require permits, and that decision "falls squarely within the discretionary and enforcement actions of the agency that this court has no power to order."

Because the suit has little chance of prevailing, the public interest in halting construction is "slim, and is outweighed by the public's interest in maintaining jobs, tax revenues, and capital investment in the local economy," he said.

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