Strong Feelings Erupt At Back Forty Mine Hearing
Over a decade ago, gold, zinc, copper and possibly other precious and/or useful metals were found in appreciable quantities under the earth about 100 feet from the Menominee River near Shakey Lakes Park in Lake Township, Menominee County, Michigan. Since then, Aquila Mineral Resources, a Canadian company, has been working toward development of what is called the Back Forty Project.
The Back Forty Project was promoted strongly several years ago and then put on the back burner until recent months, when a new mining permit application was filed by Aquila Resources with the State of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), which is roughly the equivalent of the environmental regulations arm of Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources.
The Menominee River separates the states of Wisconsin and Michigan and runs the length of Marinette and Menominee counties. The proposed mine has generated strong feelings on both sides of the issue and on both sides of the river.
"I did not move here to witness a civil war over this mine," commented one mine opponent who said even mention of it in local coffee shops brings sometimes angry disputes.
Proponents of the mine say it will bring jobs and economic growth to the area. Opponents say it will cause noise, dust and disturbance for neighbors, disturb an historic Native American site belonging to the Menominee Indians, and cause possibly devastating pollution to the Menominee River, and possibly the Bay of Green Bay as well as groundwater and other surface waters in the area.
According to a news release issued on Friday, Sept. 2, MDEQ has tentatively granted approval of the mining permit that would allow Aquila Resources to operate an open pit metallic sulfide mine there.
To operate the mine Aquila Resources will need the Nonferrous Metallic Mineral Mining Permit, an Air Use Permit, and a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit, for which MDEQ opted to have single consolidated public hearing and comment period, plus a permit for impacts to wetlands that will be considered in a separate review process.
A public hearing held by MDEQ on Thursday, Oct. 6 in Stephenson, Mich. on the mining, air use and pollutant discharge permits drew hundreds of people, most of them loudly opposed to the mine. Written comments are being accepted until Thursday, Nov. 3. Written comments can be sent by e-mail to DEQ-Mining-Comments@michigan.gov, or can be mailed to MDEQ Back Forty Comments; Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals; 1504 Washington Street; Marquette, MI 49855.
MDEQ is required to issue a final decision on the mining permit on or before Thursday, Dec. 1.
Among the most numerous, vocal and poignant mine opponents at the Oct. 6 hearing were members of the Menominee Tribe of Indians, which has an ancient burial ground adjacent to the proposed mine site. There are also reported to be old dance rings and raised gardens there that speakers said will be bulldozed out of existence if the mine is developed.
Representatives of numerous other Native American tribes traveled to Stephenson to support the claims of the Menominees, as did non-tribal individuals from several midwestern states in addition to Wisconsin and Michigan. There were frequent references to the current fight going on at Standing Rock, North Dakota over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The hearing began at 6 p.m., and was slated to last until 10 p.m., with each speaker to be allowed five minutes to address the decision makers. Presiding over the hearing was Hearing Officer Steve Casey, Upper Peninsula District Coordinator for the DEQ, along with a panel of three other DEQ people and a recorder taking official minutes.
Because of the number of people wanting to testify, Casey announced at the outset that speakers would be limited to three minutes each. About half way through the evening he cut that to two minutes each, and still extended the hearing by more than half an hour.
Speakers addressed the hearing board almost nonstop from 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. No was allowed to come up to the podium twice. Speakers were not allowed to address the audience or engage in question and answer exchanges, although some did attempt to do that. Numerous speakers objected that their addresses had been drafted to meet the five minute limit and said they were hampered by having to cut their comments to two minutes without advance notice. Several tried to give their speaking time to others, but Case did not allow that.
At one point, when mine opponents noisily booed and interrupted a person speaking in favor of the mine, Casey declared everyone was entitled to an opportunity to speak and be heard, and restarted her time. When the booing and catcalls started again he again extended it, and said he would keep restarting her time all night if necessary. The interruptions stopped.
Although feelings obviously were strong, the vocal disturbances subsided without any threats of force by law enforcement people or anyone else on the scene.
After hearing from Dale Burie, Robin Behnke, Deb Skoubal, Maxine Kaufman and Dr. Wendell Johnson, all speaking in opposition to the mine, at its meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 20, Marinette County Board had adopted a resolution opposing the mine by a vote of 28 to 0.
Aquila people had been invited to address the meeting but failed to send a spokesman. They did send information that was included in the board packet. The packet also included information from the Menominee Tribe with some of the reasons for their opposition, mainly that the Archaeological Investigation Report for the Back Forty Project identified several sites that are likely to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and is very near other sites of known religious, cultural and historical significance to the Menominee Tribe, and approval conflicts with Michigan Act 247 that calls for cooperation with the tribes in preservation of historic places. That law went into effect on Sept. 23, and MDEQ's announcement of tentative approval for the Aquila permit just days earlier.
The message that Marinette County Board opposed the Back Forty Project was delivered in person at the MDEQ hearing by Board Chair Mark Anderson, who read the entire resolution
The Marinette County resolution states that the Back Forty Project is a proposed open pit metallic sulfide mine to be located on the banks of the Menominee River, which empties into Lake Michigan, "one of the largest watersheds in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula," and is a unique habitat for species of special concern such as lake sturgeon and freshwater mussels, which would be negatively impacted by discharges into the water.
The resolution says, "potential impacts of the mine include long term leaching of acid-producing wastes into the groundwater and the river; hazardous wastes generated by the mine would degrade water quality and present risks to human health and the environment in Wisconsin as well as Michigan; potential economic losses including reduction in property values and loss of tourism revenue are not factored into the permitting review process, and approval of this mine will result in irreversible loss of significant cultural resources of the Menominee Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, including Native American gravesites and other areas of historical significance."
The resolution strongly urges MDEQ to deny the permit, and includes a provision that copies are to be sent to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, WDNR SEcretary Cathy Stepp, legislators representing Marinette County; county board chairs in Brown, Oconto, Door and Kewaunee counties; Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and the MDEQ.
Other Marinette County Supervisors who spoke against the mine at the hearing were Dennis Marcely and Ted Sauve. Marcely pointed out that within the past year "a bunch of holes" opened in a yard and a street in Menominee, and commented, "so you see, rock does move in this area."
The Menominee Indian Tribe has held several gatherings in the Menekaunee area of Marinette in recent years, celebrating its origins as "the people of the wild rice." They replanted wild rice near the mouth of the Menominee River last year and earlier this year. in protest of the mine they completed a "Water Walk" from Menekaunee Harbor to the mine site nearly 40 miles away on Wednesday, Sept. 21 and Thursday, Sept. 22.
Members of "The Front Forty", a citizens group organized in Marinette County to oppose the mine, joined them in the Water Walk as did members of several other tribes. That support was shown again at the DEQ hearing in Stephenson, Mich.
In his comments to Marinette County Board and to the DEQ panel, Burie pointed out the proposed mine, although located in Michigan, will also adversely affect people who live on the Wisconsin side of the river.
He claimed those living close to the mine will experience decibel levels over 90, which require ear plugs; airborne, chemically-treated, coarse and fine dust will affect respiratory systems of everyone in the area; blasting could open and close water aquifers; an assessor estimates that property values near the mine will drop by 40 percent and a Michigan realtor has stated there is already buyer resistance to waterfront properties due to the mine.
Burie said the draft permit tentatively approved by DEQ authorizes an increase of pollutants going into the Menominee River, and "gives Aquila the right to destroy our water, reducing our property values while pitting neighbor against neighbor to give huge profits to a Canadian company," while having no benefit for Wisconsin.
He claims that studies show that after the Flambeau Mine in Ladysmith went into operation the jobless rate remained the same, average household income remained basically the same, and even the number of children in poverty remained the same.
He and several other speakers expressed concern about the levels of animosity that has sometimes grown up between neighbors, and sometimes even within families, over the proposed mine.
Joan Delabreau, Menominee Tribal Chairwoman and head of the tribal legislature, said the tribe is sickened by the DEQ decision to approve the mine and the tribe will continue fighting to protect "any land within our ancestral territory that contains the remains of our ancestors and our cultural resources." She said the Federal Government failed to uphold their trust responsibility to the tribes by delegating responsibilities to the State of Michigan under the Clean Water Act.
She said the area is protected for the Menominees by the treaty of 1836 as a ceded territory, and is part of "the communal landscape of our ancestors." She said the Menominees were never consulted by the researchers in regard to the permit. Her time ran out, and others tried to give her their turn at the microphone but were refused. "This typically illustrates the lack of respect for Native Americans," she declared.
Ken Fish, another Menominee speaker, said the DEQ should do a contested case hearing on the issue, and challenged the entire process of the hearing and permit action.
Menominee Tribal Historian David Grignon also said that the Menominee nation's sacred sites and other cultural resources are contained within the footprint of the mine, "an area that will be excavated if final approval is granted." He also charged that the federal agencies are not living up to their Trust responsibility to the tribes.
The tentative DEQ permit does require "the permittee" (Aquila) to immediately suspend relevant mining activities and promptly notify the OOGM Upper Peninsula District Geologist if any materials of possible archaeological, historic or cultural value are unearthed by mining activities, and that they must "implement the Unanticipated discovery Plan." If the materials are found to be in fact cultural they must notify the State Archeologist, and "if pre-contact cultural materials are discovered" appropriate tribal groups must be notified. also states that if work must continue nearby, care must be taken to avoid disturbing the area in which the discovery was made.
According to Aquila Resources, their proposed mine property covers approximately 580 acres. They say it will create much needed jobs and provide a significant economic boost to the township and the surrounding area.
"When fully operational, the Back Forty Project will create new, full time jobs with most of those positions to be created directly by the project."
Construction of the mine and related facilities will create additional construction jobs.
The company says these will be good, family supporting positions, "and Aquila is committed to hiring local residents for as many jobs as possible."
Aquila expects it will take two decades to carefully and responsibly mine the mineral deposits, after which there will be reclamation work. They say the company has invested more than $70 million in developing the project over the past 10 years.
Numerous speakers opposed to the mine cited the millions of dollars spent in the last several decades cleaning up pollution in the Menominee River since it was declared an area of concern in 1987, and expressed fears that will all be wasted if the mine is permitted.
Among them was Marinette City Attorney Jonathan Sbar. "All of this amazing work is leading us to a point where we're about to remove the river as an area of concern...miracles are happening out there," he declared. "You could throw away all the progress we've made in 135 years...is it worth the risk?" he asked.
Tom Landwehr of Green Bay and Pembine said he runs fly fishing expeditions on the Menominee River, and challenged the claimed economic benefits from the mine. He said it will hurt his business, and the tourism business in general, "to bring an economic benefit for a very small number of people for a fraction of a lifetime."
Several speakers claimed the mine will only operate for about nine years, and leave behind piles of tailings that will leach into the water for untold years.
Mary Peterson of the Menominee Tribe said information in regard to historic value of the area is required, but without a study and without tribal participation, no one can provide the needed information.
One Menominee speaker, who identified herself as a "River Woman," was accompanied by her 5-year-old daughter, who had done the walk with her from the reservation in Keshena to the mine site in two segments. declared her people have lived on this land for 14,000 years. "Our ancestors do not want to be disturbed," she declared, and asked,"How would you like it if we dug up your grandmothers and grandfathers?"
"You have to learn to respect our mother earth. Our water is dirty enough already...our river is our mother's lifeblood," she declared.
Dennis Wickes, who teaches sustainable development at a Menominee University, said there can be successful nonpolluting mines, "but this is not one of them."
Dr. Kelly McGuire of Marinette said he and his wife have a cabin on the Wisconsin side of the Menominee near the mine site. He recalled at Birch Creek there had been instances of the ground opening up in what he called "pop ups," similar to the cave-in in Menominee. He said pop ups are commonly associated with open pit mines and can open the way for pollutants to get into the ground water.
Bob Mann, who works for Eagle Mine In Marquette County, said modern mining is different from years ago, and he is proud to work in respectful modern and safe mining.
Richard Sloan, of Iron County, Mich. said sites there are still continuing to pollute the water after being closed for many years.
Laura Gauger said she is a plaintiff in a suit against the Flambeau Mine,and cited several instances where projected numbers in the permit application did not match reality. "The same firm (and the same person) prepared the studies," she said, and identified the firm as Foth Infrastructure and Environment of Green Bay. She said one of his predictions was for 300 parts per million and it turned out to be 5,000 parts per million. Other numbers were also wrong, she said.
Martina Gauthier, an attorney for the Ho Chunk nation, expressed concern about lack of attention to federal law, and about the fact that most mines and other operations of this sort go disproportionately in rural areas with extremely low populations.
Ron Johnson, a retired Stephenson supervisor and police officer, was in favor of the mine. He said he visited mine sites at Ladysmith and Eagle and elsewhere. He said when the mine in Rusk County was operating they had the most birds ever and fishermen told him they were getting the most fish ever. He recalled that when he started as a police officer 100 kids a year were graduating from the Stephenson High School, "now there are fifty." He felt the mine will be a boon to the area in many ways.
Another speaker said he had walked the land and found that sensitive areas were well delineated, and added he has found the MDEQ to be "generally more zealous than less" in enforcing regulations.
"A few years ago I watched five paper mills and two mines disappear from rural areas of the UP...We need this mine," another speaker declared.
Steve Otto, of rural Wallace, said if there is no way to correct a cyanide spill if it happens.
There were reminders about the water problems in Dearborn, Mich., concerns about spring ice breakups, a rain like the 10 inches that fell elsewhere in Wisconsin this past summer, and a claim that the mine sits on a fault line.
Speakers pro and con included professors, environmental specialists from private industry, those who said they have seen areas continue to prosper and grow even after mine closed, and those who believe after the mine is closed only the mess is left.
Ted Parent said he looked at the Flambeau mine and found that after the mine was stopped there still was a better economy, and "as of today, nobody in the vicinity is drinking contaminated water."
One speaker reminded the group that Michigan Tech University would not exist were it not for the mines in the UP.
Those who spoke in favor of the mine drew considerable amounts of supportive applause, but not as loud as those opposed.
Among those in support of the mine were Steve Alex of Champion Papers, who said he has witnessed first hand the incredible advances in environmental technology in recent years, and said there is no comparison between the mines built 50 years ago and those of today.
Nancy Douglas, head of the Menominee Economic Development organization, expressed belief they can have economic growth provided by the mine and still protect the environment. She recalled about 20 years ago when the new pulp mill was built on the banks of the Menominee in the City of Menominee there were many objections that it would ruin the river, but today it employs 100 people and there are no problems.
Douglas said she is a member of the Menominee River cleanup group and is happy that their goals will be met in 2017. "In the 35 years I've been involved I've seen no new problems on the Menominee River," Douglas continued, "Rules and regulations do work!"
She said everyone uses the metals that will be produced, and she would prefer to see the jobs here to keep young people in the area.
Gary Eichhorn of Powers said he supports the mine, trusts the DEQ and believes the mine will bring employment and economic growth to the area.
Ada Deer, a Member of the Menominee tribe who has served in many roles, including as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs with the Clinton administration, said she has traveled the land and feels this mine is too risky, and cautioned, "no industry will regulate itself."
Among other mine supporters were Laura Rasmussen, officer manager for Aquila Resources in Menominee, who operates a century dairy farm with her husband in Menominee County. She grew up in the area and recalled as a child knowing that when they grew up they would need to leave to get good jobs, and many of her friends have done that.
She believes it is good that this ore body was found in this place at this time, when strict mining regulations are in place, rather than 50 years ago, is a good thing.
A professional risk manager said he has never worked with people who are more concerned about safety and the environment than his employers at Aquila.
One lady used her two minutes to sing, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and tried unsuccessfully to get the entire audience to sing along. A few did join in.
M&M Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jackie Beaudreau was another of the speakers in favor of the mine. She said Aquila is a responsible and giving member of the community and an active member of the Chamber. She reminded the group that we all depend on resources that are the result of mining. She believes the mine offers exciting opportunities for economic growth that will stay. She said Michigan has "set the bar very high" on mining regulations.
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