Monday, October 25, 2010

Opponents of proposed "public" mine haul road call for more public input

At their Oct. 18 meeting in Ishpeming, members of the Marquette County Road Commission hear public comments on a proposed new county road, now referred to as County Road 595. (Photos © 2010 and courtesy Teresa Bertossi)

By Michele Bourdieu

ISHPEMING -- After nearly two hours of public comments -- most of them in opposition to a proposed new Marquette County road to run from US 41 and County Road FY northerly to County Road IAA, the Marquette County Road Commission voted on Oct. 18, 2010, to move forward with this road, which they named County Road 595.

Opponents of the road called for a public forum to be held in Marquette and to include Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company (KEMC), the presumed funding source for this public road, which was proposed after the Woodland Road, a private haul road for KEMC, failed to receive permits from federal and state regulating agencies last spring.

James Iwanicki, Road Commission engineer-manager, read his official recommendation for the road, which acknowledged some of the obstacles and impacts that had prevented Rio Tinto - Kennecott from obtaining permits for their proposed Woodland Road and which also included statements that drew objections from the public.

During the public comment period of the Marquette County Road Commission's Oct. 18 meeting, James Iwanicki, right, Marquette County Road Commission engineer-manager, and Darryll Sundberg, Marquette County Road Commission chair, hear public comments on a proposed new road.

"This project involves some legitimate environmental concerns," Iwanicki said. "The project will decrease potential truck traffic in the city of Marquette, County Road 550 and the US 41 corridor. The public highway safety as well as the public emergency services will benefit from this project. There are short-term and long-term financial considerations involved in the design, construction and maintenance of this project. It must be noted that, if the board decides to move forward with this project, this is just the start of a decision-making process."

The Road Commission also approved a motion to have their staff contract with legal counsel to develop written partnerships needed to design, build and maintain County Road 595. Staff time is currently budgeted in the 2011 budget, they said.

While comments in favor of this road seemed to dominate the Oct. 7 public hearing, only a few persons spoke in favor of it during the Oct. 18 Road Commission meeting. The majority of those making public comments at this meeting seemed to hold the opinion that this "public" road is primarily a haul road for Rio Tinto - Kennecott, since the route it is to take, while still vague, appears to connect the Eagle Mine site at its north end with the Humboldt mill where it meets US 41 at its south end.

Two statements in Iwanicki's recommendation define the road's main purpose: "Whereas, the purpose of the new all-season county primary road is to provide enhanced year-round vehicle access to the adjoining lands in the north central portion of Marquette County,

"Whereas, this new road will provide additional recreational opportunities to the public as well as provide a direct benefit to the timber, mining, and gravel industries."

Residents challenged the Road Commissioners for proposing a public road in the same general area as the Woodland Road, yet not providing a map to show details of the route; for possibly illegally accepting Kennecott's private financing of this road; for potentially jeopardizing water and forest resources in an ecologically sensitive area of the county; for proposing to build a costly road for a company that would only be here a short time when the county has insufficient funds to maintain its other roads; for presenting the road as a benefit for recreation when its main use would be industrial.

Cynthia Pryor questioned why the Road Commission would want to take on the responsibility of this road when Kennecott had such difficulties with the permitting process for the Woodland Road. She also noted the process for obtaining public comment was unfair to citizens because only one public hearing was held and it was held in Ishpeming Township.

Cynthia Pryor addresses the Marquette County Road Commission during their Oct. 18 meeting. She called for a public forum to include Kennecott and to be held in Marquette.

"This is a Marquette County decision," Pryor said. "This decision should be (made) at the Marquette County seat."

Pryor said the Road Commission should have further discussion with a wider audience. She mentioned a TV-6 poll of 50-50 for and against this road.

"You do not have the public's will on this road, and I would advise you to have another meeting," Pryor said. "You need more input."

Citing a booklet of the County Road Association, Pryor noted they list many ways to fund new road projects, not including private funding.

"County Boards have the authority -- with voter approval -- to raise revenues dedicated to road funding," she noted. "There ought to be a voter process -- and not just one corporation -- a multi-national corporation -- taking control of this process."

Pryor observed also that the public has no idea of the route of this new road -- where it is or what its implications are -- and that if the Road Commission intended to condemn any private property for this road it would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution to condemn land for private gain. She also noted safety issues had not yet been discussed. Large trucks on steep grades with heavy loads could present safety issues should tourists attempt to use this road.

"This is a Kennecott haul road," Pryor said.

Margaret Comfort told the Road Commissioners she wanted to see documentation on how this public road for a multi-national corporation came about -- documentation on how it became, over time, a "necessity." She said she agreed with Pryor that the citizens of the whole county should have input, because it would not just be about one road.

"Have you ever seen a situation where there's just one road?" she asked. "No. One road leads to two roads, leads to three roads, on and on. And before you know it, you have a patchwork."

Comfort suggested the Commission consider that perhaps a railroad would be preferable to a road.

Amy Conover of Marquette asked that the County Board put stringent regulations on vehicles that would transport ore from the mine site to any processing plant.

"The only safe means of transport would realistically be in an air-tight and impenetrable container that would remain intact in the event of a vehicle roll-over," Conover said. "This is to protect the environment and lives of our citizens and children and unborn children -- pregnant women and young children being the most susceptible to the type of toxins that would be released into the environment from open, exposed ores putting dust into the air."

Conover noted also that the Great Lakes contain 18-20 percent of the world's fresh water supply. Adding toxins here to Lake Superior, which feeds into the other Great Lakes, will impact the water supply of a world that is already losing fresh water because of melting glaciers and pollution -- a world that has already lost half of its wetlands, just in the 20th century.

This mining project, she observed, is driven by greed and monetary value, not the human rights to clean air and water. She presented the commissioners with a report on the cost to Michigan of diseases caused by environmental exposure.

Tom Polkinghorn of Champion said he wished to respond to some of the comments made by proponents of the road at the Oct. 7 public hearing.* He referred to comments on needing a job, wanting one's children to have a job and stay here, loving the area, a logger saying this is not wilderness, etc. Polkinghorn, who is now retired, said he grew up here but had to leave the area to find employment.

Addressing the arguments for jobs previously expressed by road proponents, Tom Polkinghorn of Champion states, during the Oct. 18 Road Commission meeting, his opposition to a road that would destroy areas of solitude and to a mine that offers only unsustainable jobs and opposes unions.

Polkinghorn said he opposes this road because in leaving this area he came to appreciate what he missed about this place. Once this road is built, people will no longer be able to enjoy areas of solitude, to fish on the rivers that now have no road crossings, to canoe or kayak on lakes in the area without seeing or hearing truck traffic or even to ride their four-wheelers and snowmobiles from Champion to Big Bay without crossing a paved road.

"Mining is simply not a sustainable economy," he said. "The area is now littered with dying communities that were all tied to mining."

Polkinghorn also asked the commissioners to note that "this company has a profound anti-union stance and is a leader in robotic mining."

Joe Derocha, Humboldt Township supervisor, again spoke of his township board's support of the road. He noted the Humboldt mill, a 40-acre Brownfield project, would be doing milling operations for the Kennecott mine -- offering great economic potential for Humboldt Township.

"That's why I'm here tonight -- to create jobs in our township," he said. "It isn't very often that we get an opportunity to have private dollars build a public road."

Susan Fawcett of Marquette said the reason she moved up here was because you can walk through so many beautiful places without seeing a road. She said what makes this place so special for her is its inaccessibility. She can hike for miles through places that are beautiful because you can't drive a truck through them.

Susan Fawcett of Marquette gives reasons why she loves hiking in the area where the proposed road may be built. Seated in foreground at left, taking notes, is Matt Johnson, Rio Tinto - Kennecott's Government and Community Relations manager.

"This road that you propose will cut right through the middle of what I think is one of the most beautiful places on earth," she said. "Because it's going through the highlands, it's crossing at the headwaters of all of these rivers that are flowing out there. It's compromising them from their very source."

Fawcett said the mine companies would be here only a short time, would leave people without jobs -- and the damage they do is going to be irreversible.

Marquette County Commissioner Deborah Pellow repeated the County Board's support of the road. She said having a private company pay for a public road would not be unusual. It would be no different from a developer paying for a road in a subdivision.

Gerald Corkin, Marquette County Commission chair, said he was also representing Negaunee Township in support of the road. He said people had complained about trucks coming down 550 and now that the company offers this alternative people are complaining about other problems. This road would be a lot safer, he said.

"Common sense tells you it makes sense, and I hope you can find an acceptable environmental solution to it," Corkin added. "I encourage you to move forward."

William Malmsten, Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC) president, said Rio Tinto and the Marquette County Board are asking the Road Commission to do something that is fundamentally dishonest -- to build a road under the false pretense that it is a public road when it is really almost the same as Rio Tinto's private (Woodland) Road, a road through a water-rich environment -- that was objected to by both federal and state regulators. Malmsten said details of Rio Tinto's financial commitment of 50 to 80 million dollars for construction of this new road -- such as support of Road Commission staff time, snow removal, length of time for the support, etc. -- are not clear. The Road Commission already has insufficient funds to maintain existing roads in Marquette County, and the public has a right to the answers to these questions, he noted.

William Malmsten, president of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC), addresses Marquette Road Commissioners on the lack of clarity in Rio Tinto - Kennecott's funding of this public road.

"It would seem premature to approve a project when you haven't lined up how the funding is going to be managed," Malmsten said.

Daryl Wilcox, Powell Township supervisor, said he did not vote for his township's resolution to support this road because he did not want to support a dead-end road that would end only seven miles from CR 550. The people of Big Bay, who live only 10 miles from the mine, would not have a connection to this road as long as the AAA and 510 are seasonal roads.

"What's going to happen when Kennecott leaves?" Wilcox asked. "It's hard for the people who live up there to have something so close to you and not know if you're going to benefit from it."

Kristi Mills of Big Bay, Save the Wild UP director, presented the Road Commission with a petition asking them to table this decision and relocate Road Commission meetings on this project to the City of Marquette where they can be accessed by the majority of the population. The petition had 238 signatures of which about 147 were online. Mills said the public needs an open door for discussion, research and maps showing where the road will be -- not just an outline of a 4-mile corridor "somewhere out there." People need more time and a plan to comment on, she said.

"We've already heard from EPA and other agencies that have weighed in on this issue and said that area is too sensitive for this type of project," Mills noted. "I'm not sure (if Kennecott couldn't receive permits for the Woodland Road) why the county thinks that they can get the same type of permitting."

Timothy Jones of Ishpeming presented himself and his young son as people who would be directly impacted by the proposed road, since his family spends time hunting, fishing and biking between Gander Lake and Wildcat Canyon.

Timothy Jones of Ishpeming, pictured here at the Oct. 18 Road Commission meeting with his son, said his family would lose recreational opportunities if this road goes through.

"It breaks my heart really to think that entire area of the county that we've enjoyed so much since we moved over here could be so tragically changed," Jones said. "Tourism and recreation are really the long-term solution for our economic problems."

Jon Saari, UPEC board member, said he realized the Road Commission is in a tough spot, but this road is being rushed through -- without due consideration of whether there are more jobs to be had from improving existing roads.

"I live up there," Saari said. "In 10 years this is going to be a road to nowhere. Why? because it's a 5-6-foot snow pack up there."

Saari noted this area would never become a settlement area and after Kennecott leaves the Road Commission wouldn't be able to maintain this road. The proposed new road would have the same problem as the Woodland Road as far as obtaining permits from regulating agencies, he added.

"Let's take the 50-80 million from Kennecott and do something useful with it for our existing road structure," he said. "The same headwaters country and that upper 10 miles are going to be rejected by the federal agencies and are what make most environmentalists rabid and disbelieving that so many people in this county apparently are willing to sacrifice that area," Saari said.

He suggested two alternatives for improving existing roads instead of building this road: improving the Peshekee grade or connecting the 510 and AAA with the lower 10 miles of the Woodland Road.

Gabriel Caplett of Skandia said he'd like to see some real information to back up the position that this road will benefit the people -- traffic studies, safety studies, reasons for continued surveys along other routes.

Gabriel Caplett, standing, of Skandia asks the Road Commissioners for documents on how this road will benefit people.

Catherine Parker of Marquette gave several reasons, supported by her research, why the public does not need this road and why they can't afford it. She also questioned the legality of Kennecott's financial commitment to this public road.

"Has Kennecott, or any other private entity, made financial commitments in advance of a new permitting process? If so, they, and other participating parties, are once again in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act," she said.** (See below for a link to our article presenting Parker's complete statement.)

Teresa Bertossi of Marquette noted comments at the Oct. 7 public hearing in favor of this road were almost entirely about the need for jobs. She spoke about her own family's mining heritage, her miner grandfather's black lung, her family's loss of land to a mining company and struggles to find employment. She gave reasons why mining does not offer sustainable jobs and why it's becoming even less sustainable as it becomes more automated.

"You're completely basing your decision on the support of this for mining jobs, because that's the only support you've received," Bertossi said. "Basically you've chosen to do the bidding of a corporation -- a very bad corporation with a very poor global record."

Tiris Valinlore of Marquette gave the example of Niagara Falls -- the U.S. side with chemical factories next to the Falls vs. the more economically successful and aesthetic Canadian side, developed entirely for tourism -- to demonstrate what happens when you put industry right next to a tourist site.

Tiris Valinlore of Marquette offers the example of Niagara Falls -- the Canadian side vs. the American side -- as an example of how industry and tourism should not be developed side by side. Seated, third from left in yellow jacket, is Marquette County Commissioner Deborah Pellow, who repeated the County Board's support of the road.

"We need to think about other kinds of development because tourism and industrial complexes -- whether chemical factories or mining -- don't go hand in hand," he said.

Kathryn O'Donnell of Marquette said she believed this project threatens the water resources of Marquette County and taking corporate dollars threatens the democracy of Marquette County.

Cynthia Pryor repeated her request to the Road Commissioners to delay their decision. She said she respects them and their work, but she doesn't like to see them doing Kennecott's work.

"I want to see Kennecott come out from behind your skirts," she said. "Where is Kennecott in this process? This needs to be part of a public forum that Kennecott -- if they are going to be funding this -- participates in."

Matt Johnson, Rio Tinto-Kennecott's Government and Community Relations manager, did not speak publicly at the meeting, but did speak with Keweenaw Now afterwards.

"Even though we didn't speak tonight, we're always available for any questions people have," Johnson said.

To a question on whether the ore could be hauled by rail (as had been indicated in the original permit application for the mine), he replied that the idea of the Woodland Road came up when the Humboldt mill became available during the permitting process. It was an opportunity to mill the ore locally and create jobs, Johnson explained.

"Even if a rail was built, a road -- whether it's an existing road or a new road -- would still need to be built," he added. "Kennecott remains interested in investigating transportation routes that meet the needs of our business and the community."

Right now Kennecott has a permit for the route down County Road 550, but at the time an alternate route becomes feasible they will re-define transportation routes in their mine permit, he explained.

"It's not a done deal," Johnson said.

Gail Griffith of Marquette noted after the meeting that the comments heard at this meeting were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed new road.

"I would like to see them have some public forums, including Kennecott, and hold them in Marquette," she said.

Editor's Notes:
* See our Oct. 15 article on the Oct. 7 public hearing on this proposed new road.
** See our Oct. 21 posting of Catherine Parker's complete comments presented at this Oct. 18 Road Commission meeting: "Is new road for Kennecott truly 'public'?"

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