EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard




Menominee native John Engel, Appleton, Wis., speaking for the Sierra Club, a national organization, talks Wednesday during a public meeting put on by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regarding an amendments to the mining permit issued to Aquila Resources for the Back Forty Mine Project in Menominee County.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Menominee native John Engel, Appleton, Wis., speaking for the Sierra Club, a national organization, talks Wednesday during a public meeting put on by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regarding an amendments to the mining permit issued to Aquila Resources for the Back Forty Mine Project in Menominee County.

STEPHENSON — There were fewer people in the audience than previous public hearings on the proposed Back Forty Mine project, but their voices Wednesday still carried the same conviction and emotion in opposition to development of the mine along the Menominee River.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality held the public meeting in the Stephenson High School gymnasium, and more than 100 people were present to comment, if they chose, on amendments submitted by Aquila Resources Inc. to amend its approve mining permit.

The amendment was submitted to the MDEQ Nov. 5, 2018, which immediately started the process by the MDEQ to determine “if the request is a significant change and public meeting is required,” Melanie Humphrey of the MDEQ’s Oil, Gas and Minerals Division told the crowd in the gymnasium.

She said the decision was made by the agency Dec. 5 to hold a meeting.

She explained that, based on the comments at the meeting and those provided in writing to the MDEQ before a Feb. 6 deadline, along with an internal review of the proposed amendment, the department could chose to either approve or deny the amendment, or “reach a proposed decision to grant or deny the permit.” If the MDEQ chose to prepare a revised amendment, that document would be released to the public and necessitate a public hearing. A final decision on a revised amendment would come after the end of the public comment period.

Neither the amendment itself, nor the time frame given to the public to review the 904-page document sat well with many of the people who commented, especially since many had trouble finding or opening the document on the MDEQ website.

The MDEQ acknowledged that technical glitch, with Humphrey saying that people with Apple operating systems were not able to access the materials. She said the agency had provided an information sheet on how to download the documents.

But that technical problem, combined with the holidays, made it difficult for many people to read the document and determine what changes were being proposed. There was a general call to extend the comment period beyond Feb. 6 to give people more time.

“The availability of the amendments was not adequate,” said Craig Corn, vice chairperson of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, which has opposed development of the mine in the area where their ancestors lived and died centuries ago.

Corn said his council and the members of the tribe also are concerned about the amendments that call for an expanded facility. He called for more “meaningful conversations” between the MDEQ and the tribe, which hasn’t occurred to date.

Crystal Chapman Chevalier, secretary of the Menominee Indian Tribe, said the mining permits in the past had been “fast-tracked by the previous administration” and said MDEQ had an “opportunity to be on the right side” by stopping the mine from moving forward. She said the changes called for the footprint of the mine to become larger and impact another wetland area.

David Overstreet, an archaeologist and associate professor at the College of Menominee Nation, said the MDEQ needs to call for more than the reconnaissance study that was done on the site where the mine is proposed, adding a more extensive on site archaeological study was needed.

Others brought up concerns that the amendments also call for a larger tailings pond and a larger dam and questioned the data used to determine that the dam would hold. Carol Johnson said the weather data used by Aquila was 18 years old and did not take into account the climate changes that have been seen across the country, including the Midwest. “The public needs more information,” she said.

The plans call for tailing storage of 4.9 million cubic meters, which Laurel Anderson said would cost an estimated $6 billion to clean up, should it leave the ponding area and contaminate the river and the bay. “This is a disaster waiting to happen.”

The speakers also included representatives of the Sierra Club and of several environmental coalitions, including the local groups that have been formed in recent years.

Lea Jane and Dale Burie, members of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River, called for an extension to the comment permit after having heard about and experiencing their own problems with trying to download the documents. “People are still struggling to gain access,” said Lea Jane Burie.

Dale Burie said that “Aquila had 16 years to get it right” and said that the MDEQ should scrap the entire process and make the mining company start over.

There were many who questioned the “upstream method” proposed for the tailing pond, said it was chosen because it was the cheapest to construct, but was unstable.

Along with the amendment to the mining permit, there are modifications called for in the air use permit and the dam safety permit. Citizens called for combined hearings to be held on those permits as well as any MDEQ proposed changes to the mining permit amendment.