EagleHerald/Rick GebhardMike Thibault, Gwinn, business representative, Michigan Building and Trades, said Tuesday the law is the bottom line on permitting the mine at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s public hearing on a wetlands permit at the Stephenson High School gym.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Mike Thibault, Gwinn, business representative, Michigan Building and Trades, said Tuesday the law is the bottom line on permitting the mine at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s public hearing on a wetlands permit at the Stephenson High School gym.
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STEPHENSON — During Tuesday night’s public hearing put on by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) more than 400 people turned out to show support and voice their opinion on the proposed Back Forty Mine.

The purpose of the public hearing was to give the public a chance to offer input on the wetlands, lakes and streams permit. The MDEQ would consider information relevant to the application on whether or not to issue the permit.

Following is a continuation of the story from Thursday’s EagleHerald on the numerous people who spoke to the MDEQ regarding the wetlands, lakes and streams permit.

Youth

Many college students and youth traveled near and far to speak to the MDEQ, voicing opposition against the mine. 

Emily Gryga, a student at the UW-Stevens Point who studies ecosystem restoration and management with an emphasis in wetlands and water resources, was dismayed that the permit could go through.”As a student and hopeful professional, I’m astounded that whether this permit will be passed or not is still a question,” Gryga said. “The immediate and obvious answer should be no. It should not.”

A vital topic of her wetlands focused natural resource classes, she said, is how wetlands are being lost and degraded. One of the top reasons for this, she cited from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was pollutants from mining operations. These are things natural resource professionals should know and be taking into consideration, she said.

“To some of you, hopefully all, the importance of a wetland and any ecosystem for that matter should be enough to say no to this permit,” Gryga said. “The fact that you still have clean water to drink should be enough to say no to this permit; the fact that wetlands provide opportunities to hunt and to fish — without them, this opportunity is lost — should be enough to say no to this permit. All of these reasons and more should be enough to say no.”

With less than 50 percent of wetlands left, it is necessary to preserve the wetlands that are still intact, she said.

“I would also like to add, how disappointed I am in Aquila, by their utter lack of respect and their cultural ignorance for the Menominee people,” she said. “And I am disappointed and alarmed to be here in 2018 to have to support the rights of people in their culture and past. We are better than this. There should not have to be reason to prove this, yet here we are.”

Charles Spice traveled from Milwaukee to attend the public hearing. 

“As a youth, I feel like my generation is what’s going to inherit the earth and we’re going to pass it onto our youth when we have our own children,” Spice said. “We know that historically (sulfide mining) has not worked and it doesn’t look like there’s a chance it will work.”

He said that in addition to the environemtal pitfalls of the mine, that the desecration to tribal sacred sites was worth putting a stop to the project.

“It feels like our feelings just don’t matter because we’re not the wealthy people in charge. I feel like we’re being pushed into a corner here,” he said. “From every perspective this shouldn’t go through. This is wrong.”

In favor of the mine

Four people spoke in favor of the mine project out of the nearly 90 who had a chance to speak. Their common thread was in regards to the economic boost the mine would bring.

Lois Ellis, executive director of Dickinson Area Economic Development Alliance, said despite being in Dickinson County, the opportunities for economic growth from the mine would be shared throughout the region.

“We expect the Michigan DEQ to conduct a thorough and careful review of Aquila’s permit application,” Ellis said. “The company has previously shown through three permit approvals that it fully complies with regulations and can work successfully with the appropriate regulatory bodies who’ve designed an environmentally responsible project.”

Provided the required standards are met and Aquila demonstrates the ability to operate safely and in compliance with set laws, Ellis said the Alliance urged approval of the project application.

“The alliance believes that thoughtful development that protects the environment is not only achievable, but desirable by those of us that live and work in the Upper Peninsula,” she said. “We look forward to welcoming Aquila Resources and the associated benefits that will add to the economic wealth of our communities, residents and businesses.”

Mike Thibault said he represented Michigan building and construction trades/industry.

He said while he respects the passion that was present by speakers throughout the night in opposition to the mine, he also respects the lawmakers and environmental groups that sat down and negotiated the strongest mining laws in the country.

“If Aquila has submitted a complete application and are meeting those laws and requirements, the DEQ is obligated to issue this permit,” Thibault said. 

Conservationists

Activists showed up from Madison, Wis., Marquette, Mich., and in between to speak on behalf of the conservation concerns the Back Forty Mine project raises.

Seth Hoffmeister, a resident of Green Bay, spoke on behalf of Wisconsin and Michigan League of Conservation voters. The organizations serve to protect natural resources and public health on both sides of the Menominee River, he said.

“We all recognize sulfide mining’s bleak record,” Hoffmeister said. “Every single sulfide mine in existence has polluted the waters around it. Not some, not even most. Every. Single. Sulfide mine.”

When sulfide-bearing rock, which is the majority of what will be produced in the open pit mining process, meets air and water, it creates a toxic yellow sulfuric acid, known as acid mine drainage, he said. Sulfide mining in an area filled with wetlands and only a stone’s throw away from the Menominee River, puts waters and people nearby and downstream at risk.

“Although the State of Michigan is in charge of protecting wetlands, they have been out of compliance with wetlands protections for 20 years,” he said. “Approving storage of up to 54 megatons of sulfide tailings within wetlands isn’t just flirting with disaster, it’s ensuring failure.”

He urged rejection of the permit, citing the mining industry’s failure to conduct risk-free metallic sulfide mining.

“Until we can be certain of the effectiveness of any new technology, we cannot jeopardize the thousands of people who live downstream by allowing a company with no proven track record using techniques that up to this very moment consistently fail.”

Al Gedicks, the executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, spoke about a facet of Aquila’s mining application that had been overlooked: methylmercury. 

He said in Aquila’s application encompassing 2,650 pages, there isn’t one mention of methylmercury. He said this was a significant scientific omission.

Methylmercury bioaccumulates through the food chain and increases impacts on both aquatic resources and human health, Gedicks said. One of the principal discharges from the wastewater treatment plant and from the mine itself are sulfates. Discharged from treatment plants with no permit limits, they can stimulate the conversion of mercury into methylmercury, he said. 

The sulfate discharges into the water, the sulfur compounds into the air, and mercury in both air and water, plus wetland discharge creates “the perfect storm” to produce huge increases in methylmercury in fish, he said. As a result of the bioaccumulation from the smallest organisms up to the largest fish, the results can be increases in concentration of a million times.

“We human beings, as well as wildlife, are the top of the food chain,” Gedicks said. “The fetus is at least five times more sensitive to the adverse effects of mercury than an adult.”

Methylmercury is a neurotoxin that effects the brain and the development of the fetus as well as young children, he said. 

“So what Aquila is proposing is to put into the headwaters of the Menominee River increases in sulfates and toxic metals that harm fish and human health,” he said.

One of the mitigating factors for reducing methylmercury is to relocate the mill to an area outside of the wetlands and the flood plains, but he said Aquila has dismissed this alternative as uneconomic.

“The only reason they can dismiss this as uneconomic is because they have not taken into account, nor have you, the effects of methylmercury on fish, wildlife and human health,” Gedicks said.