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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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012418frontundermine.jpg

One of the many signs of opposition to the mine.

Lawsuit Filed in Federal Court, Speakers Urge Back 40 Delay

Approximately 500 people filled the high school gym in Stephenson, Mich. to near capacity on Tuesday, Jan. 23 for a public hearing scheduled by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on the proposed wetlands permit for construction of Aquila Resources Back Forty Mine project.

Most of those present had come to show opposition to the mine...some for environmental reasons, some because of concerns that the mine site encroaches on ancestral lands sacred to the Menominee Tribe of Indians. Written comments for or against issuance of the wetland permit are being accepted by MDEQ until Friday, Feb. 2.

The wetland permit is the final permit needed before construction of the controversial Back Forty Project can go forward. If it is approved, company spokesmen have indicated construction will start before the end of 2018.

However, the hearing and the DEQ wetland permit requested by Aquila Resources may be a moot issue. On Monday, Jan. 22, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in Green Bay alleging that the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Corps of Engineers did not have the authority to delegate the permitting process affecting an interstate and international watershed to the State of Michigan.

The lawsuit, if successful, will require the federal agencies to assume primary control over the wetland permitting process for the mine.

Several of the speakers on Tuesday night urged the DEQ to hold off on the wetland permit decision until the federal court case is settled.

Speakers, each allocated three minutes, stepped to the microphone steadily from the start of the hearing at 6 p.m. until it ended at 10 p.m.

Those who had not been called up to speak had to leave without being heard, but were invited to put their comments in writing and submit them before the Feb. 2 deadline, via regular mail or e-mail. Address is NE Office of NDEQ, 1504 W. Washington Street, Marquette, Mich.

One gentleman who did not get a turn to speak said he had signed up when he arrived at 2:30 p.m. and had been waiting since then.

The DEQ hearing panel was headed by District Supervisor Steve Casey, with Environmental Quality Analyst Kristi Wilson and Jarrod Nelson assisting. Casey held speakers to the three minute limit, and speakers were not allowed to allocate their time to others. No costumes or signs were allowed in the gym. At the start Casey read the law on which the DEQ must base its wetlands decision, and that included that only comments with information specific to regulated resources would be considered, and comments related to other aspects of the project would not.

"By law the DEQ is not allowed to make its decision on whether or not there is widespread opposition or support for a project," he said.

In the lobby, members of the Menominee tribe provided free refreshments for attendees, including coffee, water, snacks and venison sandwiches. Casey thanked them for that.

The first speakers called were leaders of the sovereign nation tribes, followed by local government leaders, and then members of the public.

Proponents say the mine, which is expected to yield quantities of gold, silver, copper, zinc and other minerals, would bring the region thousands of jobs, $20 million in annual tax revenue and more than $152 million annually in direct, indirect and induced spending.

Opponents say the mine operation as proposed would destroy the tourism industry that currently supports the area, permanently damage the environment, damage sacred Menominee tribal sites, kill the fish, pollute the drinking water locally and perhaps in the entire downstream portion of the Great Lakes. They also say since the mine is expected to operate for only seven years, economic benefits would be short-lived at best.

Aquila Resources, Inc. is a Canadian firm that for several years has been attempting to develop the Back Forty Project, a sulfide open pit mine in Lake Township of Menominee county, Mich., on a site that is located just 150 feet from the Menominee River that divides Wisconsin and Michigan. The proposed site is near the scenic 60 Islands that some describe as the most beautiful section of the Menominee River. Numerous residences are located directly across the river in Wisconsin.

The mine site is in an area with at least 22 known archaeological sites, ancient raised garden beds, and ancestral burial grounds of the Menominee people, who believe their people were created where the Menominee River meets the waters of Green Bay, in the harbor section of Marinette known as Menekaunee, where the cities of Marinette and Menominee and the states of Wisconsin and Michigan come together. Tribal legend says the Menominees lived there for thousands of years. They were residents there when the first white men came, and also had settlements upstream on both sides of the river, at least as far as the proposed mine site, which is about 15 miles upstream. They were eventually forced off their ancestral lands and settled on what today is the Menominee Reservation about 60 miles to the west.

The Menominees, with support from numerous other Indian Nations, have vigorously opposed the mine since it was first proposed at least a decade ago. The proposed site is in the midst of some 22 known archaeological sites, ancient gardens and ancient burial sites of the Menominee people, according to Menominee tribal spokesmen.

Andrew Boushy, representing Aquila Resources, Inc., of E807 Gerue Street in Stephenson, Mich., applied for the wetlands permit. They propose to impact 28.4 acres of wetland and 550 linear feet of stream by constructing a polymetallic open-pit mine with above-ground tailings disposal and rock management facilities, onsite wastewater management facilities, and operations and storm water management facilities.

According to the DEQ hearing notice, the project proposes to excavate approximately 980,820 cubic yards of material from 5.3 acres of wetland and place approximately 803,453 cubic yards of fill in 5.9 acres of wetland and 253 feet of stream channel. There would also be reductions in surface water that would impact 17.2 acres of wetland and 297 linear fee of stream channel.

As compensatory mitigation, the applicant proposes to place a conservation easement and perpetual long-term management of a 507.74 acre parcel elsewhere in lake Township. This parcel contains 294.24 acres of existing wetland, 7,864 linear feet of perennial stream and 4,794 feet of Menominee River frontage.

First speaker called was Menominee Nation Chairman Gary Besaw, who said many members of the Menominee nation are current landowners and taxpayers of land in Menominee County, Michigan. He called on DEQ to put the permit decision on hold until the federal suit is settled.

He also declared that last week the DEQ had found significant and unacceptable inconsistencies on the application, and for that reason alone it should be sent back for a new start. He said data in the 2,300 page wetlands permit application keeps changing, "and the public has been having a hard time trying to track a moving target."

"Damage will surely happen and be irreversible," Besaw said, and concluded, "New information has now been submitted, and the entire permit process should be re-started."

Other tribal chairs from the Oneida Nation, Stockbridge Munisee, Mole Lake Chippewas, and Ho-Chunk nations spoke in support of the Menominee Nation's opposition to the permit. Many cited the need of all creation for water, and objected that plans for the mine will allow for destruction or disturbance of the ancestral burial grounds of the Menominees.

The Oneida Nation chair declared the mine operation as proposed will expose sulfide minerals to air and water, and use of cyanide in the operation futher increases release of toxic minerals that are extremely harmful to humans and the environment. She said the water will need to be treated in perpetuity, and said taxpayers will be left with the bill after the mining company is gone.

The Stockbridge representative declared it "absurd" that a Michigan Senate Resolution supporting issuance of the wetland permit was passed three months before the application was complete. She said this was a clear sign that the DEQ's mind was made up by legislative interference.

Ada Deer of the Menominees declared Michigan's wetlands are the kidneys of the Great Lakes, and must be kept healthy so the water can be cleansed.

Among local leaders who also spoke against the permit were Lake Township Supervisor Bob Desjarlais, who said the town is very concerned, and urged denial of the permit, ""based on independent reviews"and errors and inconsistencies in their application."

Several speakers declared there has never been a sulfide mine that did not cause pollution.

A Menominee Nation legislator and an environmental scholar, pointed out that areas of the permit application have significantly changed since it was first filed, including that new land was purchased and there are plans to use it. He said in the 100-year flood study there is no evidence that Aquila included an analysis of the effect if the White Rapids Dam should fail. He noted one part of the application says there are no invasive species involved while another includes a management plan, "which seems strangely out of place if no invasive species exist!"

Don Corn, a teacher at the Menominee Tribal School, brought 30 letters from young students opposed to the mine. He said the layout on the mine permit application does not match the wetland permit application language and description.

Some of the speakers seemed to threaten other actions should the mine permit be issued. One who said he had 200 to 300 letters from other opposed urged DEQ to apply environmental justice appropriate to tribal interests, but declared, "For 500 years we've been lied to and I think this is no different"You say you want to hear from us, but your minds are made up!"

He went on, "You will not break our spirits"We will stand on the shoulders of our ancestors"We will always be here. This is our land. We will not give up!"

Later in the evening another speaker declared he has been fighting all his life, and declared, "We will fight this in court, and if we cannot win there, I guarantee you, I'll see you on the front lines." He added that he has Iroquois kids in Canada, and "we're going to fight you up there too!"

Bess Waukeshan of the Menominees called on the DEQ to apply environmental justice appropriately, and cautioned if they approve an incomplete, incorrect application, "You are opening the doors to applications from other predators who want to come in and rape your beautiful land!"

She said there are many "holes" in the application, including that impact was not fully analyzed, the location and size of the operation itself is different than it was in the original mine application, there is no description of material to be used to contain the waste, and the company needs to set aside financial reserves for long term site care.

Dale Burrie, a Town of Wausaukee (Wisconsin) resident said he lives directly across the river from the proposed mine site. He said the river affects the municipal water supply of two cities in two states, and strongly urged the permit should be handled by some other regulatory agency, "not the state of Michigan!"

He said bull heads and red horse suckers are listed on the application as the only aquatic life in the river near the mine, with no mention it being a prime area for fishing muskie, sturgeon, walleye and other prized fish.

Ken Fish, of the Menominees, declared the US government did not have the authority to delegate the permitting process to the state of Michigan and should be required to make the decision on the wetland permit and other permits as well.

Many speakers representing environmental groups, student groups, and local residents voiced strong opposition.

Mike Tebo, of Michigan Building Trades Council, was one of only three who spoke in favor of the mine. "I respect the passionate people here tonight," he said, "but I also respect the law makers who negotiated the strongest mining laws in this country"I believe if Aquila meets all the requirements the DEQ is obligated to issue the permit."

A tiny girl, with mom helping her reach the microphone, repeated a sentiment many expressed, "Everybody can live without gold. Nobody can live without water."

Near the end of the evening, Menominee Mayor Jean Stegeman said she was speaking on her own behalf, not officially since Menominee City Council had not yet taken a position on the mine application. However, she said, as a citizen, "There are some things in this world that money cannot buy"and this project is an unfathomable risk!"

She added, "At our committee meetings we were assured by Aquila that there is no guarantee that pollution will not happen," and then called for DEQ to refuse the permit.

Next called was Steve Fifarek, an elected official serving on Menominee City Council. He too said he was speaking as an individual since there was no official city action, but he had brought with him dozens of letters from residents of his district who had asked him to oppose the mine. "This project is nothing short of reckless!' he declared. He repeated that he was speaking as an individual Councilman, and also stated he was serving as spokesman for many of his constituents.

Several of the speakers suggested that there might be a compromise, for example Aquila could move its operations to a site farther from the river, on higher ground, a site without wetlands to be impacted and less danger of polluting the river. Ken Holdorf, who lives in Marinette and holds an environmentally related Master's Degree, said DEQ policy is to grant these wetland permits only if there are no feasible alternatives. He said there are obviously alternatives since the site has changed since the first permit submission, and they now propose a new site where waste will be less dense.

If the mine itself could not be relocated, they could at least truck the excavated materials to a safer site for treatment.


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