At a "lunch and learn" informative session on Aquila Resources’ Back Forty Project for an open-pit mine near the Menominee River, Save the Wild U.P. President Kathleen Heideman points out the location of the proposed pit (red circle) and its proximity to the Menominee River. Save the Wild U.P. held three of these sessions in Marquette to inform concerned citizens about the mining project so that they might participate in an upcoming MDEQ (Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality) public hearing on permits required for the proposed mine. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)
MARQUETTE -- The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) plans to hold a public hearing in early October 2016 on Aquila Resources' Back Forty Project -- an open-pit sulfide mine for gold, zinc and other metals, proposed for the bank of the Menominee River, 10 miles west of the town of Stephenson, Mich.
MDEQ held an initial public informational meeting on Aquila's Part 632 mining permit application on Jan. 5, 2016. The upcoming consolidated public hearing is intended to cover not only the proposed decision on the extensive (reportedly more than 37,000-page) Part 632 mining permit, but also the NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) wastewater draft permit and the Air Quality draft permit.
Joe Maki, MDEQ geologist for the Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals (Marquette), told Keweenaw Now today that he expects a Public Notice will probably be posted for the upcoming October public hearing as early as tomorrow, Sept. 2, 2016. A 30-day public comment period will precede the hearing and will continue after the hearing.
"Under 632, after the hearing, the statute says we are required to keep the public comment period open for 28 more days," Maki said, "but it could be open beyond that if we receive important technical information."
The NPDES is a wastewater discharge permit which would regulate water treatment and authorize wastewater discharges to the Menominee River.
An August 3, 2016, Public Notice of a 30-day comment period for the NPDES permit stated the following: "The applicant proposes to discharge treated mine drainage, treated wastewater, and treated storm water to the Menominee River. The applicant proposes to develop a polymetallic mineral deposit that will include an open pit mine, beneficiation facilities, and tailings management facilities. The ores will be processed for zinc, copper, silver, and gold. This draft permit authorizes an increased loading of pollutants to the Menominee River, which will lower the water quality with respect to certain parameters."*
The Public Notice added that Aquila also submitted an Antidegradation Demonstration showing that "lowering of water quality is necessary to support the identified important social and economic development in the area."*
Aquila's NPDES permit application states, "Water discharge is required, since water demands of the milling facility are exceeded by water sources available from precipitation and mine water inflow. Excess water is treated and discharged through a discharge pipe/outfall directly to the Menominee River adjacent to the Project. This application requests approval to discharge treated water to surface waters of the state."*
Comments on NPDES draft permit to be accepted after Sept. 2 deadline
While the 30-day comment period on the NPDES draft permit is stated to end this Friday, Sept. 2, 2016, two MDEQ officials told Keweenaw Now that comments will be accepted beyond that date.
According to Steve Casey, Upper Peninsula District Supervisor, MDEQ Water Resources Division, people can still submit comments on the NPDES after Sept. 2 since another 30-day comment period to precede the consolidated public hearing will include that permit along with others.
Alvin Lam, environmental engineer in the Permit Section of MDEQ's Water Resources Division in Lansing, who receives the NPDES comments, confirmed yesterday that he would continue to accept comments emailed to him at email@example.com, even after the Sept. 2 deadline, when comments based on the Aug. 3 Public Notice will not be accepted on the Web site.
"If people want to submit comments to me by email I will accept them," Lam said.
Lam noted he has received about 10 comments through the Web site and a few more via email. He expects the gap between the two 30-day comment periods to be brief since a Public Notice on the hearing, tentatively to be scheduled for early October, is expected to be issued soon.
Casey said the NPDES public comment period for 30 days preceding the hearing could possibly be extended after the hearing as well.
"The statute (Part 31) is very protective of the water," Casey said. "It requires that we put restrictions on the discharge so that it doesn't cause significant degradation."
Save the Wild U.P. offers information on Back Forty project
During three "lunch and learn" sessions in Marquette, Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP) an environmental group that opposes sulfide mining, offered presentations and discussion to help concerned citizens learn about the complexities of the Back Forty project so they might be better prepared to participate in the upcoming public hearing.
During the July 18, 2016, session, SWUP President Kathleen Heideman displayed a map that shows the proposed location of the open-pit mine and its proximity to the Menominee River, near the Michigan-Wisconsin border:
In a list of "Aquila Back Forty Facts" on their Web site, Save the Wild U.P. states, "The entire planned Back Forty open pit mine and Tailings Waste Rock Management Facility basins (TWRMF) hinge on a single underlying assumption: that the State of Michigan will agree to a proposed LAND SWAP with Aquila Resources.The proposed land exchange threatens critical habitat, including threatened and endangered species. The mining proposal’s open pit mine, contingent upon the land swap, would disturb or destroy tribal archaeological resources, treaty protected natural resources, and Menominee River fisheries."**
Heideman pointed out the location of archaeological sites on her map. The Menominee Tribe has expressed serious concern that the mine would destroy several historical and sacred sites that date back 1000 years.***
In addition to the NPDES permit for wastewater, Aquila must obtain a Wetlands permit since the proposed mine would impact several wetlands in the area.
According to Steve Casey, the Wetlands permit is different from the other permits because the Public Notice for wetlands is for the complete application, not a proposed decision, as in the case of the Part 632 mining permit, or a draft permit such as the NPDES or the Air Quality permit. He noted Aquila is now working on getting a complete application for wetlands. Consequently, the upcoming consolidated public hearing will not include the Wetlands permit.
"It's very different (for wetlands) because we ask for public input before we've completed our evaluation," Casey said.
In her July 18 presentation, Heideman pointed out the location of wetlands in the Back Forty project area and cited some errors made by Aquila in the wetlands application process.
SWUP's Fact Sheet notes that because Aquila's Back Forty is a potential sulfide mine, the danger of Acid Rock Drainage (ARD) is very high since it threatens to leach sulfuric acid into the Menominee River, which flows into Lake Michigan. SWUP cites concerns of the Center for Science in Public Participation, which did a technical review of the Aquila project and reported ARD as one of their concerns in a Feb. 24, 2016, letter to SWUP's Kathleen Heideman.****
Casey said the potential for ARD depends on what is in the ore.
"We're requiring treatment of their wastewater to meet water quality standards to protect the Menominee River," Casey explained.
The Part 31 water quality standards have been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as protective, he added.
From a request through the Freedom of Information Act, Save the Wild U.P. has received copies of Public Comments on Aquila’s Back Forty Project, received by MDEQ between December of 2015 and March 2016. SWUP says more than 2,000 members of the public -- including local residents, landowners, fishing enthusiasts, business owners, county officials, educators, tourists, tribal members, scientists, environmentalists and other concerned citizens -- expressed serious concerns about the project. SWUP has made these comments available online.
Maki said he read all the comments his office received, but he didn't remember getting as many as 2,000 of them. He said MDEQ has considered all aspects of the application.
"We will not close the public comment period (for Part 632) until we have made a final decision," Maki added.
Maki also pointed out that, under Part 632, a mining permit is not effective until all other environmental permits have been approved.
Editor's Update: A Sept. 2, 2016, press release from MDEQ confirms Oct. 6, 2016, as the date for the consolidated public hearing.
See also: "Aquila Resources: Putting Their Mine Where Our River Mouth Is?" by Tyler Detloff, reprinted from Anishnaabe News, Spring 2016, p. 10, by Save the Wild U.P.
* Click here to download the complete Public Notice on the NPDES permit for Aquila Resources' Back Forty project and related MDEQ documents, including the draft NPDES permit.
** See SWUP's "Aquila Back Forty Facts."
*** Click here to read about the Menominee Tribe's connection to the Menominee River and its "Sixty Islands."
**** Click here to read the letter from the Center for Science in Public Participation.