The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has objected to a wetland permit for the proposed Back Forty Mine in Michigan's western Upper Peninsula near the Wisconsin border.
The Menominee Indians across the border in Wisconsin—but whose tribal lands once encompassed the mine site—have fought Michigan's permitting process for years, saying the state was ignoring their concerns both about the project's threat to water quality and sacred cultural artifacts nearby.
Mining opponents cheered the federal action Friday. The EPA's letter, they said, places significant hurdles before the state and the developers.
"There's no one small fix the company can do," said Kathleen Heideman of the Upper Peninsula's Mining Action Group, which opposes the mine. "The company would have to fix it in so many ways it would become a different permit, or a different project."
The mine—a proposed 83-acre open pit gold, zinc and copper mine by Aquila Resources— has been making its way through the state's permitting process for years despite opposition from the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, other regional tribes, local residents and environmental groups.
The tribe considers the land sacred, even though—thanks to a series of treaty revisions and land grabs over the past 150 years—the Menominee reservation is about 80 miles away, across the state line in Wisconsin.
The mine would sit within 150 feet of the Menominee River, a core part of the tribe's creation story, and near burial sites, centuries-old raised garden beds.
The river forms the border between Wisconsin and Michigan and is the largest watershed in the Upper Peninsula, covering about 4,000 square miles. More than 100 tributaries drain into the river. It supports large populations of bass, pike, walleye and spawning grounds for sturgeon.
The tribe has fought the mine for years, citing neglect for cultural impact.
In the letter, the EPA suggested the state had not fully addressed the tribe's concerns.
"The applicant has not provided sufficient information to support the assertion that the proposed project would likely not impact potentially eligible or eligible resources. Historical and cultural resources should be addressed for the entire expanded project site," the letter read.
Environmental Health News highlighted the Menominee's fight in the 2016 series "Sacred Water," a national look at how culturally significant water resources get sullied, destroyed and defaced by activities often happening beyond Native Americans' control.
The EPA letter, sent to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which is overseeing state permitting, also said the mine project does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines. The EPA, wrote agency Water Division director Christopher Korleski, "objects to the issuance of a permit for this project as proposed."
Some areas where the permit was lacking:
Information on how historical, cultural resources will be protected.
A complete project and site layout description
Information on how bluffs near the mine will be kept stable
Details on how discharges will be brought up to water quality standards
Full wetland mitigation details
Aquila did not return requests for comment.
The letter comes two months after the Menominee filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA claiming the agencies had failed to take "primary responsibility" for wetland permitting.
Menominee Tribal Chairman Doug Cox was traveling and unable to comment on the EPA's letter.
Environmental groups and regional fishing associations applauded the letter. "We are thrilled to see EPA leading the charge to protect Michigan's world-class waters and habitat from the potentially devastating impacts of the Aquila mine development," said Cheryl Kallio, associate director for Great Lakes-based nonprofit Freshwater Future, in a statement.
Jerry Pasdo, president of the Wisconsin Smallmouth Alliance, said in a statement: "We are working to protect water quality for our safe enjoyment of the Menominee waterway – and Lake Michigan. We hope the entire wetland application gets turned down – flatly."
The EPA letter, which represented the comments from the EPA, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, gives the Michigan DEQ 90 days to work with Aquila on the permitting issues. If that doesn't happen, the wetland permitting authority transfers to the Army Corps.
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.
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.
Our fourth and final permit for the Back Forty Project has been deemed administratively complete. A public hearing will take place in January, while a permit decision is expected from the MDEQ in the first half of 2018. #mining#MiningAmericapic.twitter.com/LqQovnAKqv — Aquila Resources (@AquilaResources) December 10, 2017
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.