Dear Editor,

Aquila Resources continues to provide misleading and inaccurate information about the status of the Back Forty project in its most recent financial report. The company’s March 2020 report states that “Aquila has received all State and Federal permissions required for the construction and commencement of operations at the Back Forty Project.”

However, the company has not yet submitted a revised Dam Safety Permit Application. According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), “Aquila is not authorized to begin construction of the mine and will not be able to proceed until all permits, including the Dam Safety Permit have been approved by EGLE.

The Back Forty tailings dam, designed to store toxic mine waste, may be the most controversial permit in light of the unprecedented flooding after two dams collapsed in Midland, Michigan, following record rainfall in May. Gov. Whitmer noted that the flood severity was on the order of a 500-year storm event.

The Edenville and Sanford dams that failed were water-retention dams made of concrete and steel. In contrast, the upstream dam design proposed for the Back Forty tailings dam is made of crushed waste rock and overburden soil. If the more stable water-retention dams were unable to withstand a 500-year storm event, how could Aquila’s far less stable Back Forty tailings dam possibly withstand such a challenge?

The likelihood of intense storms is rising rapidly in the Midwest, posing a direct threat to tailings dams. According to David R. Easterling, director of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “Most current infrastructure, such as dams and bridges, was designed based on rainfall values from the mid-to-late -20th century and was not built to withstand the more frequent extreme rains identified by the new research.”

A catastrophic failure of the Back Forty tailings dam could lead to significant costs, including loss of life, contaminated drinking water, destruction of tribal sacred sites, taxpayer-funded cleanup costs, lost income and loss of environmental benefits associated with clean water, air, and soil. Aquila’s reliance on short-term loans means they lack significant financial resources, resulting in a “liability gap” where the costs of environmental damage would be shifted from Aquila to the public. Previous tailings dam failures have exceeded $1 billion in damages.

Michigan’s Part 632 mine regulation does not require pollution liability insurance for Aquila’s tailings dam. When companies know they may not bear the full cost of environmental damage arising from their actions, they have less incentive to take actions that reduce the risk of harm. The result is a greater overall risk to the environment. This situation is unacceptable and requires an update to Michigan’s mine regulation.

 

Al Gedicks

Executive secretary, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council