Monday, April 25, 2011

At Houghton Town Hall meeting local elected officials attack federal regulation of gas drilling, mining

By Michele Bourdieu

State Sen. Tom Casperson (left, standing) and State Rep. Matt Huuki address a mostly supportive crowd at the April 23 Town Hall meeting held in Michigan Tech’s Isle Royale Ballroom in the Memorial Union. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

HOUGHTON -- The Town Hall meeting with State Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) and State Representative Matt Huuki (R-Atlantic Mine) on Saturday, April 23, at Michigan Tech began with a discussion on budget cuts, the need for jobs and tax base, and proposed development of natural resources -- which led to criticism of federal regulation to protect those resources.

Casperson appeared to be sympathetic in his answer to a question by a special education teacher on Medicaid cuts affecting wheel chairs for severely impaired students and people in nursing homes, saying he would be willing to bring a wheel chair up north himself if the issue weren't complicated by the need for it to be fitted to the user.

"I'm going to go to the appropriations chair in the Senate, and I'm going to bring that up with them," he said.

State Sen. Tom Casperson, left, answers a question from the audience at the April 23 Town Hall meeting at Michigan Tech. Casperson and Rep. Matt Huuki, right, took turns answering questions. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Allan Baker)

Huuki said this problem was an example of "the magnitude of the issues we're facing right now" --a $ 1.4 billion deficit. "Surface" arguments over whose piece of the pie gets cut will not solve the problem, he added.

Huuki expressed his concern about the budget cuts, especially to schools.

"We're dealing with major issues with our schools," Huuki said. "Trust me. I've got stomach aches about our schools and what we're facing there."

Huuki noted he had introduced legislation to help Upper Peninsula schools by allowing smaller schools to save money from administration and put it into classroom use.

"We've got to get to the root of our issues, and the root of our issues is the lack of jobs. That is what I've been focusing on," Huuki said. "How are we going to get employment back here to get the tax base back to enable us to have the services that we need here in Michigan?"

A comment from the audience on "all that natural gas under Lake Michigan" was met with some applause from the audience -- and followed by a negative comment about the "green movement."

State Rep. Matt Huuki tells a Houghton audience "the root of the problem" of the state's budget deficit is "jobs." He points out the possibility of drilling for natural gas under the Great Lakes as Canada has done. (Video clip © 2011 and courtesy Allan Baker)

Huuki noted Canada is doing well because they've accessed their natural resources (and possibly ours) by drilling under the Great Lakes. He said we could do this "responsibly" ourselves instead of buying the gas from them. Huuki said we need to "unshackle ourselves" -- apparently a reference to easing environmental regulation -- so that we can access these natural resources.

Casperson noted, aside from the Great Lakes sources, natural gas deposits on state land below the bridge, north of the Gaylord area, could possibly earn the state $100,000,000 a year for the Natural Resources Trust Fund.

"It's our money. It's the people's money," Casperson said.

Neither Casperson nor Huuki nor anyone in the audience brought up the current concern about the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" method of obtaining natural gas and the dangers it poses to drinking water.

An April 19, 2011, article in the Michigan Messenger notes a recent congressional report that "the nation's 14 leading natural gas drilling service companies used hydraulic fracturing fluids containing 29 different chemicals regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) as potential human carcinogens." The article adds that Michigan auctioned off 120,000 acres of state land for hydrofracking and plans to auction off half a million more acres soon. In addition thousands of acres of private land have been leased to gas companies for this process.*

Neither elected official mentioned specifically how accessing natural gas below the Mackinac Bridge would provide jobs for people above the bridge. Neither one mentioned sustainable jobs or non-fossil-fuel alternative energy potential.

To a question on whether the federal government was preventing natural gas development, Casperson said he didn't know as far as natural gas was concerned, but the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) had limited industry's access to other resources.

State Sen. Tom Casperson answers a question on government regulation by attacking efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect wetlands that would be destroyed by the proposed haul road for the Kennecott mine. Casperson did not mention "Kennecott" but his mention of County Road 595 alluded to the mine. (Video clip © 2011 and courtesy Allan Baker)

Casperson referred -- without naming it -- to Rio Tinto-Kennecott's Eagle Mine for nickel and copper when he said the EPA had halted the construction of County Road 595 intended as a haul road for the mine.

"It was EPA who literally stepped in and has halted the project," Casperson said.

He didn't explain to this audience -- or perhaps he meant to oversimplify the issue -- that the EPA and two other federal agencies -- the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission -- had objected to the original Woodland Road (a private Kennecott road) proposed last year. Local Marquette officials then came up with County Road 595, which would be a public road, but intended for Kennecott's haul trucks. Since then, Kennecott is proposing two haul road plans.**

Casperson said the proposed road affected 22 acres of wetlands over a 22-mile stretch of road.

"I personally don't see where that can't be overcome," Casperson said.

He went on to explain that he and Huuki had sent a letter from "the entire Michigan delegation" to U.S. Senator Carl Levin and the U.S. Congressional delegation urging them to tell the EPA not to regulate this (Kennecott) project.

"Senator Levin has been working in his office pretty hard to try and help this project along," Casperson said.

Editor's Notes:

* See the Michigan Messenger Apr. 19, 2011, article, "Congressional probe finds 29 human carcinogens in hydraulic fracturing fluids."

** See Catherine Parker's Feb. 7, 2011, Letter to the Editor, "Road to somewhere" on County Road 595, and accompanying links.

See also the Marquette Mining Journal Feb. 12, 2011, article, "Two-fold approach," on Kennecott's haul road plans.

This is the first in a series of articles with video clips on the topics covered at the Apr. 23 Town Hall meeting.

Update: See the second article in this series, posted May 12, 2011: "EFMs, schools concern residents at April Town Hall with Casperson, Huuki."

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