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Thursday, September 01, 2016

MDEQ to hold October public hearing on Aquila Back Forty mining project near Menominee River; public comment period continues

By Michele Bourdieu

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, 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:

During an informational session for concerned citizens in Marquette, Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP) President Kathleen Heideman describes the location of the proposed Aquila Resources Back Forty open-pit sulfide mining project near the Menominee River and notes the company's plan for a land swap with the State of Michigan, which owns much of the area. William Malmsten, former president of UPEC (Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition), who moved to Marquette from Menominee County, speaks about the popular Shakey Lakes county park adjacent to the proposed mine site. Alexandra Maxwell, SWUP executive director, mentions a nearby savannah that is a special ecosystem. Click on YouTube icon for larger screen. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

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.***

Kathleen Heideman describes the archaeological sites in the area of the proposed mine, including the origin place of the Menominee people, garden mounds and burial sites. She also notes Aquila's proposal of a cutoff wall between the pit and the river. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

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.

On this detailed map, Heideman notes with blue stars the locations of wetlands near the proposed open-pit mine. The red star at left marks the location of the (NPDES) wastewater discharge pipe. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Hancock bike lane on White St. allows cyclists to ride against one-way motorized traffic

By Michele Bourdieu

Earlier this summer, the City of Hancock had these bike symbols and a bike lane painted on White Street to indicate bicycles may proceed from U.S. 41 down the hill on White St., which has been one way going uphill in the opposite direction since 2014. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)

HANCOCK -- For the last two years White Street in Hancock, which bypasses downtown Hancock allowing vehicles (except trucks) to drive uphill to U.S. 41, has been designated a one-way street going uphill only. Recently, however, motorists going up White Street may have noticed a new bike lane on their left, which allows bikes to come down White Street facing the one-way traffic. Any bikes going up White Street must ride with the traffic, as indicated by a "sharrow" (an arrow for sharing the lane with traffic).

At the bottom of the hill, where White Street begins in downtown Hancock, this bike symbol, a "sharrow," indicates bikes going up the one-way street must share the lane with motorized vehicles. The bike lane is painted only on the opposite side of the street, for bikes coming down the hill, facing traffic.

Earlier this summer, Gustavo Bourdieu, Keweenaw Now photographer and local resident, who often crosses White Street from Pine Street to access his neighborhood, noticed contractors painting the downhill bike symbols and bike lane, took some photos and expressed his concern.

"Drivers just recently became accustomed to the one-way traffic going up White Street only, so they don't expect any traffic coming down," Bourdieu said. "It's even more dangerous now to allow bikes going down the hill because bikes may be going faster, with less control, and drivers going uphill may not anticipate the bicycles coming down."

This is a view of the bike symbol near the intersection of White and Pine streets earlier this summer. At that time the bike lane was not yet completed. Now it has been added, but no caution lines have been painted at this intersection to warn motorists approaching White Street from Pine Street or Shafter Street.

He also noted drivers coming onto White Street or crossing it from a side street need to be aware of the bicycles.

Hancock City Councilman John Slivon, who has been active in promoting safe biking in the Keweenaw, said he believes there is a need for more signage on White Street to warn vehicle drivers of the bicycle traffic going both ways.

However, at present, the bike symbols, the painted lane for the downhill bike traffic and some yellow caution lines at intersections with side streets are the only warnings to drivers of motorized vehicles.

The yellow caution lines are painted at some, but not all, of the intersections along White Street.

These yellow caution lines near the intersection of White Street and E. Franklin Street near downtown Hancock are intended to warn motorists, cyclists and pedestrians of the bicycle traffic coming downhill in the bike lane that opposes the one-way vehicle traffic. 

Bill Marlor, City of Hancock Department of Public Works (DPW) director and an active cyclist himself, said he directed painting of the bike lane and the yellow caution lines at most of the intersections on White Street.

When we reached him, Marlor said he had just returned from a vacation in Iceland, where he saw bicycles everywhere, even on very narrow roads. The capital, Reykjavik, is set up for both bicycles and cars, more than in the U.S., he noted.

"I bike to work most days," Marlor told Keweenaw Now. "It's a good way to wake up in the morning and wind down after work."

Marlor said he considers the bike lane on White Street as "very temporary" -- a trial for the present since Hancock's present street renovation project (with construction now on Quincy Street) will include construction on White Street in the near future.

"If the [bike] lane is to be kept, we would have to come up with signs for both the bicycle and motorized traffic control," Marlor said. "I've been using it with caution."

He noted cyclists must control their speed going down the hill, and he has thought about posting a speed limit equivalent to a "walk your bike" speed.

"The only thing we're going to do now is collect comments and design ideas from the [City of Hancock] Bike and Pedestrian Committee," Marlor added. "I'd like to do something there [on White Street] for bicycles and pedestrians for the future. The City could go back to a two-way street, eliminate the bike lane, keep it as now or change."

Hancock City Manager Glenn Anderson said the City is always looking at adding bike lanes, and right now they are asking MDOT (Michigan Dept. of Transportation) to mark bike lanes on M-203 with bike symbols inside the City.

"We can always do more signs," Anderson added. "We can always do more."

Bicycle Ride of Silence raises safety awareness

Last Wednesday, August 24, BIKE - Bike Initiative Keweenaw, which promotes cycling safety, partnering with local law enforcement, hosted a 19-mile Bicycle Ride of Silence from Hancock to Chassell and back to honor people who have been injured or killed while biking, particularly in several recent tragic events in Michigan this year, and to raise awareness among all of the users that share the road.

Participants in the 19-mile Aug. 24, 2016, Ride of Silence gather for a group photo. The bicyclists rode from Hancock to Chassell and back. (Photo courtesy of Ride of Silence Facebook page.)

Steve Lasco, organizer of the Ride of Silence, said about 80 bicyclists participated in the ride. Lasco is a member of BIKE - Bike Initiative Keweenaw and also a designee from WUPPDR (Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region) on Hancock's Bike and Pedestrian Committee.

Bicyclists continue their Ride of Silence through downtown Houghton on Aug. 24, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Ride of Silence Facebook page)

"Distracted driving is a huge problem, even in our little area with its relatively light traffic, and that includes people older than 25," Lasco noted. "Far too many people drive their motor vehicle while looking at their phone or tablet. The fact is, distracted driving now has surpassed drunken driving as the USA’s Number One highway killer.

"The June incident in Kalamazoo (where an allegedly impaired driver plowed into nine cyclists riding in a group, killing five) just kind of hit me right in the heart and prompted me to organize our Ride of Silence," continued Lasco, a Keweenaw Bay resident. "I’ve been door-dinged, yelled at, and people have thrown things at me, all because I’m riding my bike lawfully on Michigan roads and streets. We simply ask that motorists slow down and share the road with cyclists and pedestrians. A motorist’s momentary lapse of awareness can in a second take the life of a cyclist or pedestrian. No text, game or video is so important that accessing it should cost another person their life."

Lasco also noted the Ride of Silence would not have been achievable without the support, cooperation and efforts of the City of Hancock Police Department, City of Houghton Police Department, Houghton County Sheriff’s Department, and the Department of Public Safety and Police Services at Michigan Tech University. 

In July, BIKE - Bike Initiative Keweenaw posted on their Facebook page a link to an article from the Detroit Free Press that noted "an alarming surge in [bicycle] crashes -- fatal and non-fatal -- reported by police agencies across the state." According to the article, bicycle fatalities in Michigan were up 57 percent from 2014 to 2015.*

* Click here for the July 13, 2016, Detroit Free Press article, "Fatal bicyclist crashes surged 57 percent in Michigan last year."

Monday, August 29, 2016

Pipe Out Paddle Protest 2016 against Line 5 oil pipeline to be Sept. 3

During the 2015 Pipe Out! Paddle flotilla protest, canoers and kayakers near the south end of the Mackinac Bridge call for shutting down Enbridge's Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac. This year's protest will be Saturday, Sept. 3. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)*

MACKINAW CITY -- Calling all defenders of the Great Lakes! Concerned citizens calling for the SHUT DOWN of Enbridge Line 5 OIL PIPELINE under the Straits of Mackinac invite all Kayaktivists to join them in a flotilla of protest from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 3, at Mackinac Lighthouse Park, N. Huron Ave. and N. Nicolet St., Mackinaw City, Mich. Protest launch times will be at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Line 5 is a 63-year-old pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac. It carries light crude oil and natural gas, and it is owned by the same irresponsible company (Enbridge) that allowed the Kalamazoo River oil spill to occur. If this pipeline breaks, it will devastate the pristine waters of Lake Michigan for centuries. This pipeline poses too great a risk to our Great Lakes.*

A flotilla is a large group of kayaks/kayaktivists protesting on the water for a cause, or calling for an ACTION.  Some kayak rentals may be available, first come first serve. You can also observe the kayaks from shore. Grab-n-Go food and refreshments will be available. Visit the Pipe Out Paddle Facebook page for details and updates. Click here to register.

If you cannot attend, click here to donate to the cause.

* See Keweenaw Now's extensive article with videos and photos of last year's Pipe out Paddle Protest.