By Michele Bourdieu
LANSING -- The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) has sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking the EPA to remove their
objections to the proposed County Road 595, a haul road for Rio Tinto that would impact wetlands and streams in a 21-mile wilderness corridor, connecting the Rio Tinto Eagle Mine on CR AAA with the Humboldt Mill near US 41.
Dan Wyant, MDEQ Director in Lansing, states in the Sept. 17, 2012, letter, "At USEPA's August 28, 2012, public hearing in Marquette, local elected officials expressed overwhelming support for this road, which will reduce truck traffic in populated areas while improving access to a remote part of northwest Marquette County. While that support was far from unanimous at the hearing, the voice of the elected representatives of the local populace speaks to the benefits of this road."*
State Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) reacts to being booed by a large number of people in the audience at the Aug. 28, 2012, EPA public hearing on CR 595 after he stated most of his constituents support the road. (Photo © and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye)
"His comment, 'far from unanimous,' is the only acknowledgement Wyant makes of the many comments made by local residents, sportsmen, Native Americans and members of environmental and conservation groups who oppose the road and who made it clear during the hearing that these 'elected' representatives do not represent them on this issue," said Joanne Thomas, a UP resident who followed accounts of the hearing in various local media.
In a letter to EPA, Catherine Parker of Marquette objected to the idea that the road would benefit the public.
"This is not a project that was worked up for the public benefit, and EPA’s concerns are with the regulations," she noted. "They do not have to weigh economic factors or bow to pressure from industry."
Parker also notes MDEQ staff are hampered in their efforts to follow the rules of the Clean Water Act (CWA) by their limited budget and by political pressure from state and local officials.
"Michigan has been in trouble with this before, and is still, apparently, unable to discharge its responsibilities properly with regard to CWA regulations. Budgetary concerns, regulatory capture, and the current political climate have made it difficult to impossible for even the most conscientious staffers to achieve outcomes that are consistent with their ideals," Parker writes. "In a recent meeting between DEQ’s Dan Wyant and local environmentalists, Wyant said that DEQ intended to 'excel at customer service,' and that he was happy to announce that Michigan would be keeping its wetlands program, with another $1.5 million in funding from Governor Snyder. It isn’t hard to read between the lines, here."
In their April 23, 2012, letter objecting to the proposed CR 595, EPA expressed their concerns for the potential impacts to wetlands and streams, the existence of better alternatives and the inadequate wetland mitigation plan.**
In his letter to EPA, Wyant continues, "As director of the MDEQ, I believe the improvements to the Road Commission's proposal since last April (he refers to the USEPA's April 23 objection letter) have brought this project to the point that Michigan will soon be in a position to issue a permit under state authorities. Any permit that MDEQ issues will be appropriately conditioned to ensure that all USEPA objections will be fully resolved."
Residents, tribal representatives note road would threaten valuable ecosystem
In their comments to EPA on this proposed wilderness road, Jim and Nancy Haun of Skanee wrote, "The 595 Highway through the mountains will disrupt the wildlife corridor and reduce wildlife numbers as well as interfere with historic wildlife trails. The disturbed wetlands and streams will impact the way of life of many animals, plants and vegetation. The CR 595 will become the backbone of a huge mining and logging district and cannot help but change the flora, fauna and wildlife forever."
The Hauns also noted they had observed in the area of the proposed road a small stream that flows out of a marsh filled with rare Pitcher Plants.
These rare Pitcher Plants grow in a marsh in the area of the proposed CR 595, which, if built, would impact more than 24 acres of wetlands, mostly high quality forested wetlands.* (Photo © and courtesy Nancy Haun)
In their letter to EPA concerning CR 595, The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community commented on the impacts to wetlands and to plants used for medicinal purposes by
"The significant impacts associated with the development of this mine haul road in a relatively pristine area (along with additional foreseeable secondary development associated with it) within our 1842 Treaty territory poses a considerable threat to treaty reserved resources still used and being revitalized by tribal members for subsistence, cultural and medicinal purposes," the letter states.
"In 1993, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) published 'Plants Used by the Great Lakes Ojibwa,' which provides detailed data and information about traditional plant use and occurrence in the northern Great Lakes region, including within the proposed CR 595 corridor," the KBIC letter continues. "Many of these essential culturally significant plants occur specifically in wet areas and wetlands. Rights to access, harvest and use these resources are protected through treaty-reserved usufructuary rights within the project area. CR 595 and additional foreseeable potential developments would have significant impact on important remaining wetland plant resources and habitat. Many culturally important plants were not adequately documented by the applicant, some of which may be threatened species."
Jessica Koski, KBIC mining technical assistant, who spoke at the Aug. 28 EPA Hearing on CR 595, had this to say in reaction to MDEQ Director Wyant's recent letter to EPA: "Allowing a public entity to utilize its authority to apply for permits in the name of public interest primarily for the direct benefit of a private mining interest sets a dangerous precedent for other similar industrial projects that may affect our Community and treaty resources."
Koski said her own personal concern is whether the state agency is compromising its important environmental protection role for political decision-making.
Don Henson, a botanist who has worked in the Upper Peninsula, wrote to the EPA about his concerns that the road and the noise and vibrations from the trucks would threaten rare ecosystems containing plants that could have future medicinal purposes. It will also "increase the ability for the introduction of disease and invasive species that larger, relatively undisturbed (in many places) ecosystem segments prevent," Henson says.
This is a drawing of one of Rio Tinto's trucks that would be used to haul ore on the proposed CR 595. According to Dan Blondeau, Rio Tinto advisor, Communications and Media Relations for the Eagle Mine, "The trucks will be washed prior to leaving the mine site and the trailers will be covered. The side dump trailers reduce the rattling that comes with rear dump trailers." (Image courtesy Dan Blondeau, Rio Tinto)
"The diversity and interdependence of the organisms in these soil ecosystems is so specialized that extremely careful attempts to move them to the lab for further study has not worked for about 95 percent of the organisms in this amazing ecosystem," Henson adds. "There are all forms chrysotile present. Chrysotile is the the easiest rock mineral formation for me to identify, given that I am a less than a professional geologist but one who, as a botanist, has learned a lot about geology just to look for plants that are specific to certain substrates. In spite of this I see no reference to the contents of the disturbed soil from the Eagle Project, other than general dust size control attempts that are said to be planned, but no mention of what the dust contains. I wonder why that would be?"
In his letter to EPA, MDEQ Director Wyant concludes that the Marquette County Road Commission has made significant improvements to their January 2012 application for the MDEQ permit for CR 595.
"Those improvements include clarification and amplification of the alternatives analysis that demonstrate the proposed route is the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative to achieve the project purpose," he states. "The Road Commission's application now includes reduced impacts to streams via shorter and wider stream crossings or bridges. The road footprint has been narrowed or removed across the rare and imperiled wetlands to reduce impacts. The proposed route has been modified in several locations to avoid critical wetlands and further reduce overall impacts. Other concerns expressed in the EPA's objection letter will be addressed by conditioning of any permit the state issues. This will include a comprehensive plan for monitoring and minimizing wildlife collisions and invasive species monitoring and eradication. Finally, the mitigation plan has been significantly improved, now consisting of preservation of a large, critical tract of land adjacent to the McCormick Wilderness."
Wyant's letter is addressed to Dr. Susan Hedman, Administrator, USEPA Region 5, 77 West Jackson Boulevard (R-19J), Chicago, IL 60604-3590.
UPDATE from Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve:
The Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve (YDWP) reported this afternoon, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012, that they received a message from Melanie Haveman of EPA Region 5 Water Division's Watersheds and Wetlands branch, saying the EPA will not meet the originally stated Oct. 1, 2012, deadline for announcing the status of the CR 595 permit application.
In an email message, YDWP reported, "The EPA received a lot of comments and will spend time going through all of them before making their decision. They will come up with a timeline for the release of their decision on the permit and provide the timeline to the MDEQ. It is possible that they could approve the permit at the state level but not at the federal level. At this point the Marquette County Road Commission has submitted most if not all of their information."
* Click here for Part 1 of our article on the Aug. 28, 2012, EPA Hearing on CR 595.
Click here for Part 2 of our EPA Hearing article. Both parts of the article include video clips of the hearing.
** Click here to read the April 23, 2012, objection letter from EPA to the MDEQ. Michigan is one of two states -- the other is New Jersey -- that have the authority to issue wetlands fill permits under the Clean Water Act. EPA retains oversight authority to object to proposed projects that do not comply with federal guidelines.