EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Douglas Stephen, Menominee, speaks about the moral dilemmas of the mine at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality public hearing Tuesday at Stephenson High School. The crowd responds in the background to Stephen’s suggestion of a possible relocation of the mine site to Canada.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Douglas Stephen, Menominee, speaks about the moral dilemmas of the mine at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality public hearing Tuesday at Stephenson High School. The crowd responds in the background to Stephen’s suggestion of a possible relocation of the mine site to Canada.
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STEPHENSON — People came from both sides of the river: Menominee, Marinette, Wausaukee, Waukesha, Stephenson, Marquette, Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Stevens Point and places in between and far beyond.

They spoke on methylmercury, wetlands degradation, pollutants, preserving cultural sites, tourism, fishing and hunting industries, ecosystems, biodiversity, unborn children and future generations and local interest versus foreign gain.

The common thread was their passion; and their pursuit was to voice their opposition to the Back Forty Mine project.

During Tuesday night’s public hearing put on by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), there was no mistaking the sentiment in the gymnasium at large. In attendance was a crowd topping 400 people, more than half in cerulean "Save the Menominee River" T-shirts, all clapping, chanting and thrumming for a cause. Of the nearly 90 who had a chance to speak, with three-minute time allotments each, only four were in favor of the proposed mine along the Menominee River. 

The purpose of the public hearing was to give those interested in the project an opportunity to provide information that the MDEQ could use on whether or not to issue a permit. The MDEQ representatives would not respond to any questions related to the permit, but merely take the information provided and consider if it related specifically to the impact of the wetlands, lakes and streams application, said Steve Casey, the Upper Peninsula district coordinator for the MDEQ. Though, Casey added, some people may want to express support or opposition to the project.

“We’ll be happy to make note of the position, but please understand, the MDEQ is by law not allowed to base a decision on whether or not they’re in support or opposition of the project,” he said. 

Following is a representation of the people who spoke to the MDEQ regarding the wetlands, lakes and streams permit and what they had to say: 

TRIBAL

Multiple people from regional Native American tribes spoke in opposition of the mine and in solidarity with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, who recently engaged in a federal lawsuit to shift regulatory control of the Back Forty Mine project from the State of Michigan to federal oversight. 

Guy Reiter, also known by his Menominee name Anahkwet, addressed the MDEQ in its obligation and responsibility to address the permit “through the lens of environmental justice” and to apply that justice appropriately to tribal interests. 

“You act like you want public opinion, but I don’t think you do,” Reiter said. “Your mind’s already made up.”

He asked attendees to stand in solidarity for their water, land and people. He said that despite a history of forced relocation, termination and restoration, they would not be deterred. 

“I’m telling you our will will not be broken,” he said. “We’ll stand in all adversity, and we’ll stand in pride and dignity and we’ll stand on the shoulders of our ancestors that are in the ground that Aquila wants to dig up.”

He pointed to Aquila representatives sitting in the far corner of the gym.

“They’re not going to be with this community, they’re not in this community (and) they’ll be long gone after this mine pollutes this water and pollutes this land,” Reiter said. 

Crystal Chapman Chevalier, a Menominee Tribal legislator, said her comments reflected herself as an individual tribal member, as the Menominee Chairman is the only spokesperson for their nation.

“The official state motto of Michigan is, ‘if you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you,’” Chapman Chevalier said. “Well that is exactly what you currently have with the proposed Back Forty Mine site on the Menominee River: A pleasant and beautiful peninsula, abundant in wildlife, fishing, ancient cultural sacredness and wondrous wetlands — the natural filter for the all-encompassing element that a human cannot go near hours without.”

That element is water, she said, and the giver of life.

She asked the MDEQ how it could make every effort, take every shortcut, provide every extension, ignore every inconsistency and shortcoming to “plow full steam ahead” on the Back Forty Mine project.

“I will tell you why. Because your history of being the flint that sparked environmental disaster and water crisis has already been established,” she said. “I can already predict how this plays out.”

Her comments, she said, would be marked not relevant to the permit along with the comments of others that are scientifically and morally correct in their opposition to the mine. Then, the wetlands permit would be approved by the MDEQ, despite the current court battle.

“You will do all this, just so that some foreign mining company can come in and rape your pleasant peninsula through the extraction of resources that will leave a cancerous crater in the earth,” Chapman Chevalier said. “All this, because you are just as a pimp, selling mother earth to the highest bidder, and you are just as a villain of every movie your children have ever watched about environmental injustice. And you are just too blind to see the future disastrous consequences of your decisions.”

She ended by saying that the MDEQ would facilitate its corruption with a rubber stamp of pollution.

LOCAL

Many local residents from within Menominee and Marinette Counties spoke against the mine, though none spoke in favor of it.

Douglas Stephen of Menominee spoke about Aquila Resources moving its mining site away from the river.

“The MDEQ cannot issue a permit unless the applicant has shown that a feasible and prudent alternative does exist” Stephen said. “An obvious benefit to wetlands would be to move the ore processing offsite, resulting in a much smaller footprint; however, that alternative for processing offsite was rejected with no real analysis.”

A detailed economic analysis needs to be conducted, he said, in order to determine whether an off-site location would be feasible and prudent.

“I have numerous reasons why I personally object to this Back Forty Mine on moral, ethical and environmental grounds,” Stephen said. “This is the most morally reprehensible and potentially disastrous and catastrophic environmental event that Michigan may ever witness.”

He suggested an off-site location for the proposed mine that the majority of the public would favor.

“That would be in Toronto, Canada, where Aquila Resources is located,” he said. 

Jean Stegeman, mayor of the City of Menominee spoke on behalf of herself, as the City Council has not yet taken a position on the proposed mine.

“I’ve gotten many letters and postcards from constituents opposing this mine,” Stegeman said. “When I’m in public, I’m very frequently approached by residents who are fearful of the pollution that is 100 percent certain based upon the historic data for sulfide and rock mining. There are some things in this world that money cannot buy. Stopping acid mine drainage is one of them.”

She said, while not enumerating on previous information shared throughout the evening, the endeavor of the mine proved an “unfathomable risk.”

“I personally oppose this mine based upon the inevitability of what it will do to our environment,” she said.

At a recent meeting, Stegeman said, Aquila representatives said there were no guarantees against profoundly negative impact.

“They are asking us to pay an unbearable price,” she said. “Please consider the danger to our unique ecosystem and our precious Menominee River during your evaluation process.”

This story will continue in Friday’s EagleHerald with further representation of those who spoke for and against the Back Forty Mine project at Tuesday’s public hearing.