EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Speakers were set up with the back to the audience as citizens voice their concerns speaking to the panel during the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (formerly the DEQ) hearing Tuesday at Stephenson High School.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard

Speakers were set up with the back to the audience as citizens voice their concerns speaking to the panel during the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (formerly the DEQ) hearing Tuesday at Stephenson High School.

STEPHENSON — The public hearing held Tuesday by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, formerly known as the Department of Environmental Quality, brought out hundreds of people to the large gymnasium at Stephenson High School — all of whom had a message for the agency deciding on the future of permits for the Back Forty Mine.

Some of those messages were emotional, as people spoke of their personal experiences in the area where the mine is proposed. Others were scientific, with references to the mechanical functions of the mine, its processing facility and storage of byproducts. Still others spoke of the economic benefits or consequences.

There were landowners, environmentalists, elected officials and business representatives present.

The EGLE representatives were given three-plus hours of comment to absorb in coming weeks, along with the written comments that will still be accepted in July, before making their decisions on three amended permit applications.

Douglas Cox led the public participation, speaking as a chairman of the Menominee Nation, which considers some of the land where the Back Forty Mine would be located as sacred to the Menominee people.

“I’m here today representing over 9,000 tribal members, who are also landowners in the state of Michigan,” he said, adding, “the Menominee Tribe strongly opposes Aquila Resources’ Back Forty Mine project.”

He and other representatives of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin criticized what they called inadequate involvement with the tribe during review of the area’s cultural resources.

David Grignon, Menominee Tribal preservation officer, said the burial mounds of the tribe’s ancestors “are near the footprint of the mine.” Because it is a sacred area of indigenous people, Grignon said the permitting process should have involved federal agencies, not just the state of Michigan.

That concern was brought up by other speakers, who questioned why the state of Wisconsin was not involved in the process, given the shared ownership of the Menominee River. Numerous landowners from the downriver portion of the Menominee River in Marinette County stood up to share their concerns about potential contamination from the proposed mine, which is located 50 yards from the river.

While concerns were expressed about permits needed for controlling the dust from mining, stockpiling and moving ore to be processed, most comments centered on safety of the proposed Tailings Management Facility (TMF).

Many attendees were critical of the design of the TMF, which uses an “upstream method” to contain the leftover materials after all the copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver has been extracted.

John Engel, representing the Sierra Club, said the upstream method of tailings containment was “the most vulnerable and Aquila Resources has zero experience in (constructing) a tailings dam.”

Given the current water levels as a result increased rainfall, along with a projected model of excessive rainfall in coming years, Engel said, “this is a disaster that has found a place to happen.”

Former State Sen. Tom Casperson shared his history of the drafting of Part 632, which he said was put together “by a wide group of people … Republicans and Democrats, environmental groups and mining companies. And when it’s all said and done, just for your records if you don’t all know, the department supported the legislation … Natural Wildlife Federation supported it, Sierra Club supported it, Michigan Environmental Council supported it, Trout Unlimited supported it and the Front 40 Environmental Group supported it. And I say that, because what we see happening here is you can’t even get out of the gate and we have opposition immediately. Some of these groups I mentioned were in Lansing … opposing these activities, when they in fact they supported them.”

He said the law was signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whom he quoted as saying, “These standards are the toughest in the country, if not the world. And we should be proud of that and if we can put our people to work under these tough standards, we should do that.”

“I think Gov. Granholm was right, and that’s why we support this project. We support 632, and we expect Aquila to follow it,” Casperson said.

Paula Mohan, Madison, Wis., countered with her view of the history of Part 632, the Michigan regulation passed in 2004, that governs nonferrous mines, such as the Back Forty.

“It was a compromise document, as former Senator Casperson mentioned … between environmentalist groups, scientists and business groups. It was designed to find a way to permit nonferrous sulfide mines, but still protect the resources in the area.

“The plain language of the law states, ‘The proposed mining operations will not pollute, impair or destroy the air, water or other natural resources or the public trust in those resources.’ It’s clear that the intent of the bill — even if a mine is permitted —  is the primary concern of EGLE is to protect the resources and to safeguard the public interests,” Mohan said.

She pointed out EGLE’s responsibility to combine science with an interpretation of the regulating laws, while under legislative pressure to weaken legislation with a balance leaning toward mining interests. Mohan pointed to the TMF, “which would be located 50 yards from the Menominee River, has been deemed an ‘acceptable risk,’ despite the economic risk of sitting next to a major water body. Part 632 is specifically designed to prevent this, by requiring all feasible and prudent alternatives to be explored before approving a design like this.”

She said alternatives were not considered by the agency or the company.

Al Gedicks, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, said 76% of all upstream tailings dams have failed. “Tailings dam failures are not rare events. There have been 46 in the past 20 years, and such catastrophic events are becoming more frequent.”

Gedicks and others mentioned the tailings dam near Brumadinho, Brazil, which failed Jan. 25 and killed 237 people. It also was constructed as an upstream tailings dam.

Gedicks said that the Brazilian government’s reaction to the January dam disaster was to “ban all upstream tailings dam design. The appropriate response from Aquila Resources should have been to withdraw its dam safety permit and consider alternatives to the upstream tailings dam design.”

Gedicks called upstream tailings dams “ticking time bombs.”

There were a number of construction company and business representatives who spoke in favor of approving the permit amendments, many of whom work or live elsewhere in the state.

Steve Alexa, president and COO of Champion Inc. in Iron Mountain, Mich., spoke of his grandfathers, who were both miners, and of other members of his family who worked in Upper Peninsula mines. He said Champion employs more than 1,000 people from Michigan and Wisconsin. “We live and work here,” he said.

Alexa pointed to the advanced technology available to mining today. “We have followed this process, and feel confident in the controls and oversight put in place,” he said. “We are an Upper Peninsula business, supporting business in the U.P., and we support this project.”

Comments will be accepted by EGLE at these locations and deadlines:

¦ Application for permit HNK-5X9D-9HC0S under Part 315, Dam Safety of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451, as amended (NREPA), by Mr. David Anderson, Aquila Resources, Inc. The Part 315 application is available for review on EGLE’s Web site at: https://miwaters.deq.state.mi.us/, or at the EGLE, Water Resource Division, Marquette District Office, 1504 West Washington Street, Marquette, MI, 49855, or by calling 517-284-5567. The Part 315 public hearing record will remain open for 10 days after the public hearing date, closing on Friday, July 5, 2019. Any written comments to be submitted for the public hearing record must be received at this address on or before the close of the record.

¦ Permit to Install (PTI) Application Number 205-15A under Part 55 of NREPA. The Air Quality Division (AQD) will accept comments on this proposed action from May 23 to July 23, 2019. Send AQD PTI written comments to Ms. Annette Switzer, Permit Section Manager, EGLE, AQD, P.O. Box 30260, Lansing, Michigan, 48909-7760. Comments may also be submitted from the webpage http://www.deq.state.mi.us/aps/cwerp.shtml (click on “Submit Comment” under the Aquila Resources Inc., PTI Application No. 205-15A listing)

¦ The proposed decision to grant, with conditions, a request submitted by Aquila Resources Inc. to amend Mining Permit MP 01 2016, issued under Part 632, Nonferrous Metallic Mineral Mining (Part 632), of the NREPA. The Oil, Gas, and Minerals Division (OGMD) will accept comments on this proposed decision from May 23 to July 23, 2019. Send Part 632 Mining Permit Amendment proposed decision written comments to Back Forty Project, EGLE/OGMD, 1504 West Washington Street, Marquette, MI 49855, or E-mail to EGLE-Mining-Comments@michigan.gov with “Back Forty Mining Permit” as the subject.