STEPHENSON — Several hundred people attended a public hearing Thursday at Stephenson High School to have their voices heard about the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s plans to issue draft permits to Aquila Resources for the Back Forty Project in Lake Township in Menominee County.
Steve Casey, Upper Peninsula District Coordinator for the DEQ and hearings officer, said approval of all three permits are necessary for Aquila Resources to begin operations. Casey said the mining company recently withdrew its application for wetlands and streams.
“They must obtain a permit for these actions prior to the start of operation, and that would be a fourth permit, and that is not under consideration for tonight,” he said.
Draft permits being considered by the DEQ are (1) air use permit to install, (2) national pollute discharge elimination system for wastewater discharge and nonferrous metallic mineral mining. The fourth, the wetlands permit, was pulled and the application process for it must be resubmitted for approval.
Because more than 100 people filled out cards to testify, Casey said with a four-hour or 240-minute meeting, that averages to two minutes per person. Initially, the comment period was to be five minutes per person. Before the hearing even started, the time limit was decreased to three minutes and ultimately toward the end of the hearing it was cut to two minutes.
People both for and against the mine spoke, but it seemed those in opposition outnumbered those in favor.
Robin Bender, Wausaukee, gave a visual of the proposed mine.
“Lambeau Field, a football field like most football stadiums, is about the same size. Lambeau Field sits on 38.9 acres. The mining pit Aquila Resources is proposing, the pit alone, sits on 83 acres, twice the size of Lambeau stadium,” he said. “So picture two football fields on the banks of the Menominee River 750 feet deep. That’s two-and-a-half football playing fields deep.”
Bender added the average car is 14 feet long. “I heard the pit is going to be anywhere from 60 to 100 feet from the river’s edge, so next time you are in the right or left hand turning lane, look about seven or eight cars in front of you because that’s how far the pit is going to be from the river,” he said. “Cyanide is used to separate gold from rock. Cyanide is highly toxic. The sulfide mine in this location proposed by Aquila will generate as much as 20,000 tons of cyanide per month. That’s our air quality, and that’s gone.”
Bender noted mines leak and he doesn’t think there has been one that has been successful yet.
“If this mine flows into the Menominee River, it’s going to take approximately 48 hours to reach Marinette and Menominee. Forty-eight hours, that’s their drinking water. What’s the cost of 48 or 50 jobs to pollute all that?,” he said.
Michael Carlson said he used to clean up environmental messes.
“I don’t know what I would do to as an engineer to clean up the mess of sulfuric acid or cyanide in our water table. Don’t have a clue how I would do that. You can’t let us have that in our drinking water,” he said.
Alexandra Maxwell, director of Save the Wild U.P., said that “between December 2015 and March 2016, of the public comment received, 98 percent was opposed to this project. Enough is enough. Don’t approve this mine.”
After an hour of testimony in opposition, Casey allowed those who had submitted cards in support of the project to speak.
Supporters of the mine, some from the area and many from other counties in the U.P., have said those in opposition are overlooking scientific data because of fear and emotion.
Amy Clickner, CEO of Lake Superior Community Partnership in Marquette, urged the DEQ to approve the mining permit for Aquila to have opportunity for economic growth.
“We have a perfect example of a working nonferrous metallic mine in Marquette County and we are very proud of the Eagle Mine,” she said.
Mark Erickson, Menominee, who holds a stormwater permit license, said he read the draft permits for air and water. He said the permits are very specific and talk about parts per billion and parts per trillion.
“When we look at how tiny we are, the water coming out of the permit is cleaner than it is going in. That’s a background level, ladies and gentlemen,” said Erickson of the negative chants from the crowd. “If the tour (of Eagle Mine) showed we can mine and be environmentally responsible, I would like to take in support of this mine.”
A few residents from Dickinson County, and other U.P. mining communities, spoke in support of the project for the economic impact and the jobs it would create.
Steve Alexa, president of Champion, Inc., Iron Mountain, said the mines being built today are different than they were 50 years.
“Champion, Inc. stands in support of the Back Forty Project,” he said.
Tom Jacko, president of Champion Charter Sales and Service, Iron Mountain, said “Everyone here today has something in their possession as a direct result of mining or harvesting natural resources. We feel that Aquila will do their best and is committed to work with the DEQ to ensure all regulatory needs are met.
“We need to have quality jobs in the U.P. that provide a sustainable way of life today and in the future. I am requesting the DEQ grant the necessary permits to move project forward,” he said.
Lori Rasmussen, office employee for Aquila and wife, mother and dairy farm owner in Stephenson, said she believes this ore body was found at this time in this particular place for a reason.
“It could have been discovered 50 years ago when technology and environmental standards aren’t what they are today,” she said “We are lucky because this ore body was found at a time when firm mining laws were being developed. These firm mining laws govern the standards that Aquila must meet to acquire and retain these permits. I support the project on one condition — that Aquila must comply with environmental regulations the state of Michigan has in place.”
Those in support were outnumbered as more testimony in opposition to the mine continued until 10:30 p.m.
Kathleen Heideman, Marquette resident with Save the Wildlife U.P., said the Back Forty Mine permit contains false information and it should be dismissed as fraudulent.
“In order to calculate a mine’s risk and impact, you need to have an accurate life of mine estimate. According to Aquila, the permit application, the Back Forty mining project is an open pit mining operation with a seven-year life. This is a false statement. The Back Forty Mine Project is a 16-year mine in every single press release the company sends out in letters to their investors, community leaders, and in communications to the tribe,” she said.
Heideman also said the DEQ and the DNR might want to get together with the materials submitted by the Canadian mining company to determine ft the mine is to be for 16 years or seven years as that determines every single calculation and if the environmental impacts will be acceptable or not.
“It is willful ignorance if you overlook the fact they are publicly stating to everyone that they are planning an underground mine,” she said.
Also attending the hearing were several members of the Menominee Indian Tribe, who talked about the land their ancestors are buried on being dug up and the impact to their cultural resources while other people in attendance held signs stating Save the Water, Fight the Greed, and Stop the Mining.
Other concerns mentioned if the mine were to pollute the river were the fish, especially the smallmouth bass, Lake Sturgeon and other creatures in the water.
Regina Chaltry, Menominee, said she has read three-quarters of the 300-page mine application so far.
“I am opposed the mine. Nobody paid me to be here and nobody wrote my speech for me,” she said. “Those little tiny creatures aren’t big enough to be seen, kind of like the people here. We aren’t billionaires running around. They are part of the ecosystem and are very sensitive to the tailings of the mine, especially the sulfuric, the ions that are caused by the raising temperature. Also the sturgeon, the $7 million project, more of the remaining lake sturgeon are in the Menominee River.”
Her 5-year-old daughter also commented she loves playing in the water and on the sandbar with her friends and that she doesn’t like the mine.
Ted Sauve, member of the Marinette County Board of Supervisors, said the resolution passed by the board in opposition to the mine was a no brainer.
“Some of the things brought up before the vote was taken was there was not enough safeguards to protect the water,” he said. “Menominee River properties values were anticipated to be lowered, and Marinette County was very, very happy to pass a resolution in opposition to the mine,” he said.
Martina Gauthier, tribal attorney, said she was very concerned about the lack of laws protecting cultural sites.
She concluded her speech by saying, “We all drink the same water. If (the mine) poisons the water, only the rich people will be able to buy water.”
She compared water pollution at this proposed mine to the Flint water disaster and the unknown diseases that have now come from that.
Comments on the proposed draft permits can be submitted until the end of the public comment period at 5 p.m. Nov. 3.
All comments will be reviewed before final decision is made.
Casey said the DEQ will compile all the comments until the end of the public comment period and then respond to those and use them to make a decision.