Friday, January 19, 2018

Red-Flag Review finds big holes in Back 40 Mine’s Wetland Permit application; DEQ Public Hearing to be Jan. 23, 2018

Information from UPEC's Mining Action Group, Front 40 and Menominee Tribe 

Sixty Islands section of the Menominee River, riparian wetlands located approximately 200 feet from the proposed Project Boundary of the Aquila Back Forty Mine site. (Jan. 9, 2018, photo by Kathleen Heideman, Mining Action Group.)

STEPHENSON, Mich. -- The Front 40 Environmental Group and the Mining Action Group (MAG) of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC), working with regional environmental allies and fishing organizations, have secured an independent red flag review of Aquila Resources’ Back Forty Wetland permit application. The Back 40 is 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. The review was provided by the Center for Science in Public Participation (CSP2) which analyzes mining applications and provides objective research and technical advice to communities impacted by mining.

A Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Public Hearing for the Back Forty’s Wetlands, Lakes and Streams permit application will be held at 6 p.m. (Central Time) on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, at Stephenson High School, located at W526 Division Street, Stephenson, MI 49887. Note: due to public interest, the hearing has been moved to the school’s large gym. In addition, the hearing will be live-streamed by the IndianCountryTV Livestream studio, beginning at 6 p.m. (CT) and running until the hearing ends. The deadline for submitting written comment is Feb. 2, 2018.*

A youth-led Water Walk at 3 p.m. (CT) to Stephenson High School and a Press Conference at 4:30 p.m. (CT) will precede the hearing.

Poster announcing Jan. 23, 2018, Public Hearing and related activities in Stephenson, Mich. Click on poster for larger version. (Poster courtesy Paul DeMain)

The Wetland application includes technical information regarding wetland hydrology, direct and indirect impacts to wetlands from the proposed sulfide mine and the on-site milling operation, a compensatory wetland and stream mitigation proposal, and more.  CSP2’s technical review was completed by Dr. Kendra Zamzow (Ph.D., Environmental Geochemistry) and Dr. David Chambers (Ph.D., Geophysics).**

CSP2’s report flags significant omissions in Aquila’s permit application, especially concerns related to the Feasible and Prudent (Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable) Alternatives analysis, the fundamental test of any wetland permit, as follows:
  • "An environmental analysis needs to be conducted comparing the new proposed facility siting impacts on wetlands with the siting approved in the mining permit. The proposed single mine waste storage area is now two areas, and is much larger. The description of what is to be contained in each is inadequate and there is no description of the protections to be put in place."

  • "The former site plan was discarded in part because waste would be 'less dense' than anticipated. There is no explanation for what is behind the anticipated change in waste material density that drove the need for the greater area required for waste disposal...."
  • "Given the terrain, direction of water flow, and proximity of valley wetlands and the River, this poses risks to wetlands -- and aquatic resources in the River -- that have not been analyzed."
  • "Although there is no formal proposal for underground mining, it is reasonable and foreseeable. Therefore the full potential life of the mine should be considered when evaluating feasible and prudent alternatives that are the least damaging to wetlands."

  • "An economic analysis needs to be conducted to determine the feasibility of moving the mill out of wetland areas."
  • "It appears that most of the stream and wetland impacts might be avoided if the mine facilities could be moved further upland to a dryland site, possibly on other state lands."
Under Michigan regulations, Aquila bears the burden of demonstrating that either (a) the proposed activity is primarily dependent upon being located in the wetland, or (b) there are no feasible and prudent alternatives, and they must show they are using all practical means to minimize impacts to wetlands. According to CSP2’s review, "The mining permit and wetland permit are inextricably linked. The location and size of proposed mine site facilities as presented in the November 2017 Wetland Permit Application are different from those presented in the Mining Permit Application, and pose risks to wetlands that have not been analyzed."

MAG member Kathleen Heideman said, "This red flag review underscores our existing concerns. Aquila's Wetland permit application is shoddy. It is mired in untested assumptions about wetland hydrology, and the whole scheme hinges on a facility design which nobody has reviewed, much less approved."

Heideman noted wetlands are protected by both state and federal laws. In order for a permit to be granted, the Michigan DEQ must find that the proposed activities described in the Public Notice meet certain criteria set by Part 301, Inland Lakes and Streams, Part 303 Wetlands Protection, and Part 31, Water Resources Protection of Act 451.***

"Before wetlands can be destroyed, the company needs to demonstrate that wetland impacts are unavoidable," Heideman added. "They’ve failed that test. I don’t see how this permit will pass muster with environmental regulators."

A large crowd, with many people standing along the walls, attended the Oct. 6, 2016, public hearing at Stephenson High School on mining, wastewater and air quality permits for the Back 40 mining project. Despite much opposition, DEQ granted those three permits. The remaining permit for Wetlands, Inland Lakes and Streams will be the subject of the Jan. 23, 2018, public hearing. (Keweenaw Now file photo courtesy Horst Schmidt)

Horst Schmidt, president of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, said, "This mine threatens cultural and natural resources of the Menominee people, and the Shakey Lakes Savanna, a globally unique habitat. The Menominee River is the worst possible place for an open-pit sulfide mine. Aquila’s plan for on-site milling is especially dangerous, and needlessly destroys wetlands."

Front 40 and the Mining Action Group will deliver CSP2’s review to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) at the Public Hearing on Jan. 23rd, and ask that key findings and recommendations be incorporated into the Wetland Permit review process.

"As soon as we saw the extent of the facility modifications, we asked the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals to immediately require Aquila to apply for an amendment of the Back Forty Mine permit, or review the facility changes along with the Wetland permit -- but they’ve refused to consider these questions until after the Wetland permit review is done," Heideman explained. "Aquila seeks to destroy 28.4 acres of wetlands in order to build a sulfide mine on the bank of the Menominee River. It is an alarming proposal, given the proximity of wetlands to the river, and concerns about the company’s plan to follow the orebody deeper underground. This site is complex, hydrologically, with wetlands on all sides, flowing in different directions. And the total wetland impacts may be significantly underestimated, since additional years of underground mining would greatly increase the groundwater drawdown."*

MAG member Steve Garske asked, "How many wetlands will be destroyed or impaired by the Back Forty? These wetlands are just in the way -- Aquila will mine them out, or fill them in, or the surface water will be diverted, or they’ll be buried under mine waste tailings and waste rock storage areas. Are all of these wetland losses unavoidable? That’s the big question."

Nathan Frischkorn, a Fellow with the Mining Action Group, added, "Our goal is to identify errors and inconsistencies between data and Aquila’s predicted impacts to wetlands. We want to ensure that concerned citizens, stakeholders and environmental regulators are fully informed as to the true impacts of this permit."

Ron Henriksen is a spokesman for the Menominee River Front 40 -- an environmental group in Menominee County, Mich., dedicated to ensuring that metallic sulfide mining operations are not allowed to adversely impact rivers, lakes, groundwater and lands. The Front 40 name is in direct response to the "Back Forty" venture that was created by the mining interests.

"Local residents are very frustrated, understandably," Henriksen said. "Aquila is using a bait-and-switch strategy. Since the facility’s impacts on wetlands are at the heart of the review, it would have made more sense to scrutinize all the proposed changes to the design first, before submitting the Wetland permit application. Aquila does everything backwards."

A broad coalition of fishing groups, residents, tribal members and environmental groups are united in their opposition to the Aquila Back Forty project. Downstream communities are concerned about potential impacts to drinking water and tourism, and have passed resolutions against the project. Marinette County unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Back Forty; additional resolutions have been passed by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, the Oneida Nation, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, Amberg, Peshtigo, Porterfield, Sister Bay, Wagner, the City of Marinette, Door County, Oconto County, Outagamie County, Shawano County, Menominee County, and Brown County, which includes the city of Green Bay. After concerned citizens levied significant pressure on local officials, Menominee County became the first county in Michigan to pass a resolution opposed to the Back Forty mine.

For the Menominee Indian Tribe, the area near the Menominee River, including the mine site, is their sacred place of origin and includes sacred sites and burial grounds. In addition to cultural reasons, the tribe opposes the proposed Back 40 project because of their commitment to protect the water, as they state on their Web site: "Much like our brothers and sister in the NODAPL movement we also know that water is essential to life. The Menominee River is, in fact, the very origin of life for the Menominee people. It also provides life to Michigan and Wisconsin residents and the natural wildlife within the Great Lakes ecosystem. The harmful threats to this area and all who depend on it far outweigh the corporate interests of a Canadian exploratory company and justify the denial of the necessary permits for the proposed mine."****

This ancestral burial mound is among the archaeological sites that could be impacted by the proposed Back 40 mine. (September 2017 Keweenaw Now file photo)  

"The Menominee River is my friend," said Dick Dragiewicz, an avid fisherman. "It gives me and my fishing friends a lot of excitement when those bass, especially the big ones, are seen and when they strike at our flies. The Menominee is a valuable resource that shouldn’t be damaged or destroyed, which is why I’m working to protect it from the problems the proposed Back Forty mine would cause. I don’t want to lose the river to a polluting metallic sulfide mine."

Scenic view of the Menominee River, not far from the proposed Back 40 mine site. (September 2017 Keweenaw Now file photo)

If fully permitted, the Back Forty will be a large open-pit sulfide mine on the bank of the Menominee River, the largest watershed in the wild Upper Peninsula of Michigan, only 100 feet from the water. Milling, using cyanide and other chemicals, and mine waste will be stored at the mine site, with some tailings waste remaining permanently. Most of the rock will be "reactive" or capable of producing acid mine drainage (AMD) when exposed to air and water. AMD devastates watersheds: it is difficult and expensive to remediate, and may continue leaching from the tailings for hundreds or thousands of years. American Rivers named the Menominee River to their list of "America’s Most Endangered Rivers" in 2017.

Fundamental objections to the Aquila Back Forty project remain unresolved, and two contested case petitions have been filed: one by an adjacent landowner, and another by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. The Back Forty Wetland application is currently under review by the public, tribal stakeholders, environmental groups, Michigan DEQ, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Independent review of the Aquila Back Forty Wetland permit is made possible by the generous support of groups and individuals concerned about the future health of the Menominee River. Working collaboratively, the Mining Action Group of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition and the Front 40 secured small grants and donations from Freshwater Future, Superior Watershed Partnership, the Western Mining Action Network, DuPage Rivers Fly Tyers (DRiFT), Northern Illinois Fly Tyers (NIFT), Badger Fly Fishers, M and M Great Lakes Sport Fisherman, Wisconsin Smallmouth Alliance, Fly Fishers International, Great Lakes Council of Fly Fishers International, the Emerick Family Fund, and individual fishing enthusiasts throughout the Great Lakes area.


* Written comments may be submitted to Upper Peninsula District Office, Re: Back Forty Comments, 1504 West Washington Street, Marquette, MI, 49855. You can also submit written comments here.

** (Updated) Here are direct links to the Wetland permit documents:
 Sections 1-4:  1 R-Wetland Permit Application Nov 2017 reduced Sections 1-4 rev Dec 2017.pdf

Sections 5-7:  2 R-Wetland Permit Application Nov 2017 reduced Sections 5-7 rev Dec 2017.pdf

Section 8: 3 R-Wetland Permit Application Nov 2017 reduced Section 8A.pdf

                4 R-Wetland Permit Application Nov 2017 reduced Section 8B.pdf

                5 R-Wetland Permit Application Nov 2017 reduced Section 8C.pdf

Appendix A1:  6 R-Wetland Permit Application Nov 2017 reduced App A1 rev Dec 2017.pdf

Appendix A2:  7 R-Wetland Permit Application Nov 2017 reduced App A2 (1).pdf

Appendix B:   8 R-Wetland Permit Application Nov 2017 reduced App B.pdf

*** Click here for the DEQ Public Hearing statement.

**** Visit the Menominee Tribe Web site for more info on their opposition to the Back 40 project.

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