Final permit for controversial Michigan mine gets accepted. Tribe digs in.

As a massive open pit mine inches forward, Menominee tribe looks to legal remedies

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality accepted the fourth and final permit required for the controversial Back Forty Mine to move forward.


The mine— a proposed 83-acre open pit gold, zinc and copper mine in the southwestern corner of Michigan's Upper Peninsula—has been slowly weaving through the state's permitting process for years amid growing opposition from tribes and local residents.

The wetland permit filed by Aquila Resources was accepted last week and allows the regulatory review to move forward.

The Michigan DEQ will consult with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is expected to make a final permitting decision on the mine by mid-2018. Aquila has promised jobs and money to the region—a company-backed study estimated 240 permanent jobs and more than $20 million annually paid in taxes to federal, state, and local government.

But opposition persists—and leading the charge is the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.

Related: Mining leaves a Wisconsin tribe's hallowed sites at risk.

The state of Michigan "lacks jurisdiction and authority to oversee or issue the wetlands permit required by the federal Clean Water Act," said tribal chairman Gary Besaw.

The mine would sit on sacred ground near tribal burial sites and centuries-old raised garden beds.

It would also be within 150 feet of the Menominee River—which forms the border of Michigan and Wisconsin. The mouth of the river is the center of the tribe's creation story.

In addition to cultural concerns, the tribe and locals fear pollution: extracting metals from sulfide ores can produce toxic sulfuric acid, which can release harmful metals and potentially drain into nearby waterways. More than 100 tributaries drain into the Menominee River and the watershed covers about 4,000 square miles. It supports large populations of bass, pike, walleye and spawning grounds for sturgeon.

The tribe may take to federal court to stop the mine. In November the tribe sent a 60-day notice to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers of intent to sue over the alleged failure to protect the water quality of the tribe's namesake river.

The tribe contends that the Clean Water Act mandates a culturally—and commercially—important waterway that drains into the Great Lakes should fall under federal responsibility in mine permitting.

"The Corps and EPA cannot allow a state to authorize dredge and fill under the [Clean Water Act] where the state has no jurisdiction or authority to do so," said the letter, which was sent November 6. The agencies have 60 days to respond.

Next up, however, is a January public hearing in nearby Stephenson, Michigan—where the high school gym is sure to be packed.

See the state of Michigan public notice on the mine.

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