Saturday, October 29, 2016

DEQ hearing on Aquila Back Forty mining project attracts hundreds; deadline for written comments is Nov. 3

Seated on the floor and the bleachers and standing along the walls, several hundred people filled the Stephenson High School gym on Oct. 6, 2016, for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) public hearing on permits for Aquila Resources' Back Forty Project to construct an open-pit sulfide mine near the Menominee River in the Western Upper Peninsula, near the Wisconsin border. (Photo © and courtesy Emilio Amador Reyes)

By Horst Schmidt*

[Editor's Note: The deadline for submitting written comments on the Aquila Back Forty mining project is 5 p.m. Nov. 3, 2016. See below for information.]

STEPHENSON, Mich. -- On October 6, 2016, a crowd of hundreds filled the Stephenson (Mich.) High School gym for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) public hearing on mining, wastewater and air quality permits for 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.

In the crowded lobby area of the school's gym, the DEQ had tables where one could sign up to speak and obtain informational handouts and where DEQ staff were available to answer questions. In the gym people sat in chairs, on the floor and in the bleachers. The state officials were sitting at tables on one side of the facility. As they ran out of seating, more chairs were brought in; but people still stood along perimeter walls. Several media representatives were recording the event, some staying for almost the entire four and a half hours.

In the lobby of the Stephenson High School gym, attendees sign up to make comments. DEQ staff familiar with the permit applications were also available at tables to answer questions. (Photo © and courtesy Horst Schmidt)

Local police, sheriff's deputies and two DNR conservation officers made themselves evident. Since hostility is vocalized and the feelings are strong at times, DEQ personnel requested security. Those who attend these hearings and meetings in our Upper Peninsula communities are usually well behaved, but at times vocal. Throughout the hearing, some people were defiant, but stayed within the limits of propriety. Audience members applauded frequently and were never rowdy or showed any sign of committing violence.

As the hearing begins, some people are still standing along the walls. (Photo © and courtesy Horst Schmidt)

This consolidated public hearing was 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 emissions draft permit. Aquila submitted an application for a Wetlands permit, but it must be re-done and reviewed separately.

Wisconsin activists, Menominee tribal leaders speak against Aquila project

Laura Gauger, a former Wisconsin activist, came from Duluth, Minn., to testify that mines with sulfide ore bodies are dangerous because the sulfide binds with water to become sulfuric acid.  She cited the former Flambeau mine in Wisconsin as an example of a sulfide pollution that will need perpetual water treatment. Gauger has also published extensive information on the Flambeau Mine to prove it was not, as mining proponents often say, a "successful" sulfide mine and cannot be compared to the Back Forty.

In her Web site document, Flambeau Mine Exposed II, Gauger notes, "There was no on-site processing of ore at Flambeau (all the ore was shipped to Canada for smelting), and hence there are no tailings stored at the project site. This contrasts sharply with the Back Forty’s 11.8 million tons of toxic tailings that will be stored next to the Menominee River in perpetuity. The Flambeau Mine pit was also much smaller than the proposed Back Forty pit. Comparing the two projects is like comparing apples to oranges."**

Residents from Wisconsin brought this large protest sign to the hearing in Stephenson, Mich. (Photo courtesy Save the Wild U.P.)

Al Gedicks, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and emeritus professor of environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, denounced the destruction of Native American burial sites on the proposed mining site. On Sept. 22, 2016, Gedicks spoke in detail about the Back Forty Project at a gathering of Native and non-Native concerned citizens on the Menominee River. He pointed out that the project would be a risk to investors if it lacks a social license (i.e., support of local communities) to operate.*** 

Guy Reiter, a major force in creating awareness of Native American interest and concern, let the DEQ know about the Menominee Tribe view.

A large number of Menominee tribal members spoke, many eloquently, about the proposed despoiling of their cultural artifacts and their burial grounds along the river and on the property where mining is proposed. A young woman had a staff with feathers with which she accompanied Native American speakers to the podium and stood there until they finished.

Accompanied by another tribal member holding a sacred staff with feathers, Ada Deer, Menominee elder, speaks to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on behalf of her nation. (Photo courtesy Save the Wild U.P.)

Native American veterans, the tribal chair, young people, old people, children all made pleas and accusations, citing prophesies and expressing anger and frustration during the course of the evening. Many stated the proposed mine site would desecrate Native American grave sites which have been there hundreds of years. The state says the company will respect the sites while excavating and building a concrete wall and settling ponds. Tribal members cited potential water pollution that would impact sturgeon who spawn in the Menominee River.

Tribal leaders have sent written comments to the DEQ as well.

One letter, from Joan Delabreau, Menominee Tribal Legislature chair, states the treaty origin of the Tribe's objections: "The Tribe’s ancestral territory in Michigan included lands located in what is now known as Dickinson, Menominee, and Delta Counties. These lands were ceded to the United States in the Treaty of 1836. The Tribe retains a historical connection to the land, which includes the creation of the Menominee Indian Tribe at the mouth of the Menominee River and territorial use along the same. This area along the Menominee River remains significant to the Tribe and preservation of our history, culture and site of our ancestors' remains is of utmost concern."****

Emotions high but DEQ security keeps order 

What is at stake?  A rural area along the boundary of Wisconsin and Michigan where tourism and logging have prevailed not far from Stephenson, a small town which has seen better days. The Shakey Lake recreation complex is not far from the river. One can see many signs along county roads -- some supporting, but many more against, the mine.

Standing at the back of the Stephenson High School gym during the hearing, a protester holds a sign saying "Fight the Greed." (Photo © and courtesy Emilio Amador Reyes)

Aquila Resources, the company doing the exploration and permit applications, makes claims about the safety of their engineering plans -- which include building a wall along the river to protect the pit from potential flooding, tailings ponds, the open pit mine going down 750 feet, the ore processing and water treatment plants. The goal of the DEQ is to facilitate the mining application by allegedly reviewing it against their Part 632 criteria. The question of the appropriateness of a mine so close to a major river does not seem to enter the picture. When challenged, the DEQ cite the rules rather than question the premise of environmental safety raised by environmental groups. Frequently, the agency personnel make arbitrary decisions without consulting anti-mining forces, reflecting a pro-business attitude. And, as with any mining conflict in communities, the company dangles jobs in poor counties.

Seated at this table facing the audience at the Oct. 6 DEQ hearing are Sylvia Heaton (foreground), chief of the Lakes Superior and Michigan (NPDES) Permit Unit of DEQ Water Resources Division; to her left: Hal Fitch, chief of DEQ Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals; Steve Casey, Upper Peninsula district supervisor, DEQ Water Resources Division, who conducted the hearing; and (not visible, on Casey's left) Lynn Fiedler, DEQ Air Quality Division chief. At the far end of the table is the meeting recorder. (Photo © and courtesy Horst Schmidt)

Steve Casey, Upper Peninsula district supervisor for DEQ Water Resources Division, said he believed the hearing was a success. Although comments of five minutes are normally allowed, he was obliged to reduce the comment time to three and finally to two minutes each in order to accommodate all the speakers, Casey said.

"At the start of the meeting, we had well over 100 people indicating they wanted to speak," Casey reported. "Since we had reserved the gym for four hours (which is 240 minutes), I realized that we wouldn’t get through all of the speakers in the allotted time  (240 minutes/100 speakers = 2.4 minutes per speaker).  At the start of the meeting, I shared these facts and said we’d allow 3 minutes for each commentator. I hoped at that point that enough people would use less than 3 minutes so we would make it. With about 90 minutes to go, we still had about 45 commentators waiting. So I shortened the time to two minutes.  Even so, we still had people waiting to speak at 10 p.m., the announced close of the meeting.  Fortunately, staff of the Stephenson High School agreed to give us another half hour, which was EXACTLY what it took to give everyone the opportunity to speak."

One woman asked numerous questions about the mining company application in which many questions are left unanswered.  She later came back when another member gave up his time to allow her to finish. State conservation officers were prepared to remove her after she was admonished by Casey for coming up the second time to speak. The confrontation was quietly settled when she and the person who had given up his time left the podium. Some Native American speakers flouted the time limit with audience support as Casey asked them to stop. Throughout the hearing, Casey maintained a calm facade, reflecting his 31 years of experience with the DEQ.

"We knew emotions were running high, so we did have security at this event," Casey noted. "Fortunately there were no serious incidents."

Emilio Amador Reyes, a resident of Stephenson, said the majority of people seemed to be opposed to the mine and the audience included people from both Michigan and Wisconsin.

"The sense of opposition was really powerful," Reyes said. "But the DEQ bases their decision on our weak mining laws and they don't always go by the opposition unless people can show the company is violating the laws."

That's not to say there were no supporters of mining. Individuals from companies in Iron Mountain expressed support because they would be benefactors. The Champion company of Iron Mountain, a potential supplier to Aquila, favored the mine saying it creates jobs and is safe. An Aquila employee spoke in favor of the mine. Local supporters also touted the economic benefits.

Bill Malmsten former president of Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC) and a long time anti-mining advocate, spoke against the mine. Chuck Brumleve, an engineer working for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, was adamantly opposed. Ron Henriksen, who founded the Front 40 advocacy group in Menominee County and has been leading the drive to stop the mine for 13 years, also spoke.

There was a lot of applause from the audience when speakers made especially strong appeals, asked questions DEQ has not answered or has answered inadequately. The pro-mine crowd also cheered for their people.
Just as the rhetoric got heated, so did the high school gym with about 400 people in the bleachers and on the floor. Anti-mine advocates usually got about two-thirds of the audience applauding when they made strong, emotional or humorous statements.

Professor David Overstreet, an archeologist specializing in Native American history, spoke about the adverse effects of mining on one of two sites in North America with undisturbed graves. Another person cited statistics about the proposed 83-acre parcel which will be 750 feet deep and where cyanide will be used, approximately 20 kilograms a month, saying it will reach the mouth of the river in 48 hours. Tourism will be will be negatively affected. The water table will drop as the company pumps to keep it out of the mine.

An environmental engineering consultant asked how the sulfuric acid produced and the cyanide used will be cleaned up.  A sportsman spoke about how hunting and fishing will no longer be plentiful.  Others commented that the mine is reckless endangerment and the state should create sustainable revenue sources.

Save the Wild U.P. leaders: Why DEQ should deny permits  

Alexandra Maxwell, executive director of Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP), and Kathleen Heideman, SWUP president, who have been leaders in the fight against the mine, spoke eloquently about its negative effects. They have also sent detailed written comments to DEQ explaining why the agency should deny the permits for this project.

In her official written comments to the DEQ, Maxwell writes, "Aquila resources wants us to believe we can afford to put an open-pit sulfide mine on the banks of the Menominee and rest easy. They want us to believe we can just put our feet up as the dollars roll in! They want us to put faith in the old adage that the solution to pollution is dilution, so they can dump 1.52 million gallons of treated wastewater a day into the Menominee. Wastewater with contaminants at dangerous -- but legal and authorized -- levels -- and that doesn’t even take into account the accumulated emissions from air impacts that settle in soil and make their way to groundwater! The only thing Aquila has relied upon to convince us this mine is a good idea, is the jobs angle, and those are jobs with a very short lifespan. So, really, what this says to me, is that Aquila needs to deliver on promises to stakeholders and investors and they would like to use the Menominee River as their proving ground."

Heideman also submitted written comments to the DEQ, pointing out that Aquila made false statements in their permit application to DEQ.

"Aquila told the DEQ this is a 7 year open pit mine with no underground mine," she writes. "But in every press release published by from Aquila Resources, they describe it as a '16 year life of mine, of which 12.5 Mt is open-pit and 3.6 Mt is underground.'

"By minimizing the Life of Mine number (7 instead of 16 years), the company’s application SIGNIFICANTLY UNDERESTIMATES the mine’s environmental impacts," Heideman notes. 

Heideman also explains that, by leaving out the underground part of the mine, Aquila has submitted a fraudulent application:

"Throughout the permit application, Aquila fraudulently claimed that 'no underground mining' will occur, conveniently sidestepping valid regulatory concerns under Michigan’s Part 632 rules governing sulfide mining," she writes. "Multiple items pertaining to underground mining were marked 'not applicable' such as:
  • location of shafts portals and other openings? N.A.
  • extent, depth and dimensions of underground workings? N.A.
  • provisions to ensure underground mining will not cause material damage to natural features on lands not owned by operator? N.A
"In the permit application, Aquila skipped all of the DEQ’s questions about Subsidence, Impacts to Public or Private Water Supply Wells and Aquifers, Closure of Openings and more, stating 'project does not include an underground mine as such contingency planning is not required' or 'underground mining was considered but rejected (…)' or 'underground mining is not a prudent alternative...'"*****

At the hearing, people who have lived here for generations spoke against it. People who have their summer homes did so as well. There was pleading, cajoling, anger, frustration, a silent-like stoicism at times from the speakers.

The state Office of Great Lakes and DEQ have spent $21 million to clean up the harbor in Menominee from former industrial companies, monitored by the DEQ. Here we have two parts of the same agency cleaning up the legacy mess while getting ready to approve the Back 40.

Steven Garske, botanist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and a resident of Marenisco, Mich., in the western UP, in his written comments to DEQ, questions the logic of approving this mine.

"The Michigan DNR, the Wisconsin DNR, sportsmen's groups and others have spent a lot of money, time and effort restoring the Menominee River fishery after damage from dam construction in particular," Garske writes. "This effort has partly focused on restoring healthy sturgeon populations to the river. The Menominee River is the primary spawning grounds for Lake sturgeon in Lake Michigan. The open pit would be perched 100 feet at most from the river. What happens if they get 12 inches of rain in 24 hours like Duluth did a few years ago, or 14 plus inches like some spots in northern Wisconsin did this summer? Does the whole thing go sliding into the river?"

The company offers assurances that if there is flooding the mine will not be affected nor will the company take shortcuts nor will there be new poisoning of the river. Will the DEQ offer these same assurances by permitting this project?

Interested persons may submit written comments on this project by mail or e-mail until 5 p.m. November 3, 2016. Mail your comments to DEQ Back Forty Comments, Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals, 1504 West Washington Street, Marquette, MI 49855. E-mail your comments regarding the Back Forty Mine Project to the designated MDEQ mailbox at All verbal and written comments presented during the hearing and comment period will be considered prior to making a final decision on each of the proposed actions.

To access links to Aquila's Back Forty permit applications, click here.

Editor's Notes:

* Guest author Horst Schmidt is a concerned citizen from Tamarack City, Michigan. He attended the Oct. 6 DEQ hearing in Stephenson and wrote this article at the request of Keweenaw Now.

** Click here to read Laura Gauger's well researched comments on the Back Forty project and the Flambeau Mine. 

** See a video of Al Gedicks speaking about the Back Forty mine at a gathering on the Menominee River Sept. 22, 2016. 
See also Gedicks' Sept. 16, 2016, article: "Michigan mine threatens tribe’s sacred sites."
Click here for comments on the Back Forty by the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council. 

*** See the rest of Joan Delabreau's written comments here.

***** Click here to read the rest of Alexandra Maxwell's and Kathleen Heideman's written comments and to access comments by others on the SWUP Web site. 

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