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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Environmental groups, Menominee Nation, community residents oppose Back 40 mining permit amendment, seek technical expertise

By Michele Bourdieu,
with information from the Mining Action Group of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition

During the Jan. 9, 2019, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) public meeting on Aquila Resources' requested amendment to their Part 632 mining permit for the Back 40 mining project, Steve Casey, third from left, DEQ Upper Peninsula district coordinator, addresses the audience. Also pictured are, from left, Adam Wygant, who will replace retiring DEQ Oil, Gas and Minerals Division (OGMD) Director Hal Fitch (next to him) in April; Katie Kruse, DEQ tribal liaison; and Melanie Humphrey, DEQ Upper Peninsula district geologist for the OGMD. In the background are just a few of the many law enforcement officers present at the meeting for security. The public meeting was held in the high school in Stephenson, Mich.

MARQUETTE, STEPHENSON, Mich. --  The Front 40 Environmental Group and the Mining Action Group (MAG) of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC) have secured a new independent technical review of the Aquila Back Forty Mine Permit Amendment application, to be completed by the Center for Science in Public Participation (CSP2). CSP2 analyzes mining applications in order to provide objective research and technical advice to people impacted by mining. Dr. Kendra Zamzow and Dr. David Chambers are conducting the review.

The announcement of the CSP2 technical review follows the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) public meeting on Aquila's Back 40 Amendment application held Jan. 9 in Stephenson, Mich. During that meeting more than 120 concerned citizens, tribal members, environmental groups and others expressed frustration over access to the permit files -- including password errors, server problems, and browser or operating system incompatibilities. In light of these problems, UPEC, MAG, other groups and individuals have asked the DEQ to grant a 30-day Extension of the Public Comment Deadline, scheduled for Feb. 6, 2019.

During the Jan. 9 public meeting, Ron Henriksen, spokesperson for the Front 40 Environmental Group, described several flaws in Aquila's Part 632 mining permit and announced the commissioning of an independent technical review of the permit amendment application:

Ron Henriksen, spokesperson for the Front 40 environmental group, challenges the DEQ on missing data in the 2015 permit and in the project as a whole. (Videos by Keweenaw Now)*

The Back Forty project proposes to excavate an 800'-deep open-pit sulfide mine (for gold, zinc, silver, copper and lead) on the banks of the Menominee River, 100' from the water. Milling will take place on-site, using cyanide leaching and flotation. Most of the mine site will be covered by waste rock, ore storage areas, milling facilities and tailings storage. While Aquila claims to be "minimizing impacts," the footprint of the facility has ballooned to 440 hectares (1087 acres), largely due to a larger tailings management facility. Environmental groups claim that the Back Forty’s environmental impacts could be significantly reduced by using common-sense feasible alternatives -- but Aquila Resources has rejected these options.

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

Nearly all of the Back Forty rock is reactive, or capable of producing Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) when exposed to air and water. AMD pollution devastates watersheds and lasts hundreds of years. Tailings and waste rock will be stored on-site during mining, and the tailings will remain on the surface forever. Aquila has told their investors they will pursue underground mining as a "second phase" of operations, but this is not acknowledged in any permit. Underground mining would extend the mine’s life from 7 years to 16 years,
greatly magnifying risks. During closure, the open pit will be backfilled with waste and tailings; as a result, AMD groundwater contamination is predicted to seep into the river.

During the Jan. 9 public hearing, Al Gedicks of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council warned of the high risk of tailings facility failure:

Al Gedicks of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council  warns of a potential collapse of the proposed extensive tailings facility and the possibility of seismic activity such as the Menominee Crack of 2010, which was considered to be a small earthquake according to a Michigan Tech University researcher.**

CSP2’s review will consider changes to the Back Forty mining permit, including environmental impacts, feasible alternative designs for waste storage, transportation plans, remediation, financial assurances, and the proposed use of an "upstream" tailings design, a risky construction method that has resulted in catastrophic tailings impoundment failures. Dr. Chambers, an internationally-known expert on tailing basins, will review this aspect of the permit.

"The Back Forty mine will threaten freshwater resources and destroy important cultural resources belonging to the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin," said Kathleen Heideman, a board member of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC) and a member of the Mining Action Group (MAG), who participated in the Jan. 9 public meeting.

Kathleen Heideman of UPEC's Mining Action Group speaks about the tailings threat and the need for a consolidated hearing process in order to discuss the Back Forty Mining Permit Amendment request as well as Aquila's modified Air Quality permit application and new Dam Safety permit application.

"We need a thoughtful, consolidated hearing that will allow concerned citizens to discuss all of these interconnected permits," said Heideman.

Melanie Humphrey, DEQ Oil, Gas and Minerals Division district geologist, told Keweenaw Now recently that DEQ officials are aware of the requests for extending the comment period on the proposed Aquila amendment.

"OGMD and DEQ management have been informed of requests for an extension of the comment period," Humphrey wrote in a Jan. 18 email. "The DEQ will provide notice if the decision is made to extend the comment period."

OGMD Director Hal Fitch sent Keweenaw Now a similar Jan. 18 email reply on the comment period.

Concerning the request for a consolidated hearing, Fitch said, "The DEQ coordinates the multi-disciplinary application review process for mining projects and always tries to include a consolidated public hearing for multiple permits whenever that is feasible. We are currently evaluating the possibility of a consolidated public hearing for the several permit applications currently under review for the Back Forty Project."

Keweenaw Now asked Humphrey about concerns expressed by both Heideman and Jon Saari of UPEC that the proposed mining permit amendment needs to be aligned with the recently granted but contested wetland permit.

"Aquila Resources Inc. submitted a request to amend Mining Permit MP 01 2016 that includes a proposed revised project site layout that is consistent with the site layout presented in the wetland application," Humphrey replied. "This amendment request is currently under (DEQ) technical review. If multiple applications are submitted to the DEQ for a mining operation, the DEQ divisions coordinate the permit review processes to the extent feasible within given procedural requirements applicable to individual permits."

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, file photo © and courtesy Kathleen Heideman, Mining Action Group.)

Menominee tribal members challenge DEQ on cultural resource and water protection

During the Jan. 9 public meeting, several members of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin spoke about the importance of protecting the land, water and burial sites of their ancestors.

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)

Crystal Chapman-Chevalier, Menominee Nation secretary and Michigan resident and landowner, spoke about the mine being constructed on land where her ancestors are buried.

Crystal Chapman-Chevalier, Menominee Nation secretary, addresses DEQ officials during the Jan. 9, 2019, public meeting on Aquila's mining permit amendment request for the Back 40 mining project. She expresses opposition to the mine and notes it is projected to be laid over her ancestors. 

Joan Delabreau, a member of the Menominee Tribal Legislature, spoke about the potential damage the mine could do to the landscape and the river, including the tribe's sacred cultural sites. She indicated the tribe would continue to defend these sites with litigation.***

Joan Delabreau, a member of the Menominee Tribal Legislature, reminds DEQ officials that the Menominee Nation considers it an obligation to protect, for future generations, the cultural landscape that could be destroyed forever by the proposed Back 40 mine.

David Grignon, Menominee tribal historical preservation officer, and David Overstreet, practicing archaeologist, warned of adverse effects on the cultural landscape and the need for a complete archaeological survey to protect Menominee ancestral land.

David Grignon, Menominee tribal historical preservation officer, and David Overstreet, archaeologist, speak about the need for a complete archaeological survey of cultural resources that could be impacted by the proposed Back 40 mine site.

Guy Reiter -- executive director of Menīkānaehkem, a grassroots community organization based on the Menominee Reservation in northeast Wisconsin -- attempted to ask  questions at the meeting but was told only statements would be allowed. Here is his reaction:

Guy Reiter, Menominee community organizer, challenges DEQ officials on the format of the Jan. 9 public meeting. Steve Casey, meeting moderator, tells him his questions must be posed after the meeting. Thus, the format is really that of a public hearing. When questioned on this later, DEQ's Melanie Humphrey defines the event as "a public meeting with testimonies."

Reiter was allowed to speak again toward the end of the meeting after others who requested to speak had finished. He said he wanted to make it clear that, regardless of permits granted by the State of Michigan, treaty rights and the Menominee Nation's cultural resources need to be respected.****

Reiter told Keweenaw Now he did speak with DEQ officials after the meeting but received "a bunch of non-answers" as to whether the Jan. 9 event was a public hearing or a public meeting.

"We haven't gotten any real consultation with either Aquila or the DEQ," Reiter said. "When (the federal government) delegated the federal authority to issue the permit to the State of Michigan, what happened to the treaty rights? Did they delegate those, too? Nobody knows. They won't give you an honest answer."

Rachel Fernandez (Sturgeon Woman) challenged the DEQ to protect the water, including the important sturgeon of the Menominee River, and the sacred sites of her ancestors.

Menominee tribal member Rachel Fernandez challenges DEQ officials to see beyond the greed of the mining company and protect the people and the land, air and water.

Craig Corn, vice chair of the Menominee tribe, said the tribe would be submitting comments on the permit amendment to DEQ and, like others at the meeting, also requested an extension for the comment period because of the inadequate amount of time allowed to review the documents.

"We are here to protect what this Back 40 mining project will desecrate and destroy -- an area of sacred and cultural significance to the Menominee people as well as to an important historical landscape to this United States," Corn noted.

Local residents speak out

Several speakers at the meeting were landowners who live near the Menominee River and the proposed mine site. Both Michigan and Wisconsin residents expressed their concerns about potential impacts to the river and the landscape they love.

Regina Chaldry and her daughter, Gracie, have a family cabin on the Menominee River. They have spoken at previous meetings as well to challenge the DEQ permits for this mining project.

Local residents Regina Chaltry and her daughter, Gracie, say why they oppose the proposed Back 40 mine near the Menominee River.

Dale and Leah Burie of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River, a non-profit organization of volunteers, also spoke about the need for a longer comment period, noting that they are involved in a contested case because of the threats posed to the river by the proposed Back 40 mining project.

Leah and Dale Burie of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River speak for a group of residents on both sides of the river who are concerned about the potential impacts of the proposed mine.*****

Jeffrey Budish, Michigan resident, pointed out that the type of liners proposed for the tailings facility have failed in the past. He also questioned why a survey of threats to endangered species in the area has not been completed.

Jody Korch, a local resident and fisherman, told DEQ officials at the meeting that the potential of the mine has caused the value of his land to plummet. He attempted to speak directly to a representative of Aquila Resources in the audience, but was reprimanded by moderator Steve Casey and asked to face the DEQ table only.

Jeffrey Budish and Jody Korch offer impassioned testimonies against the the Back 40 mining project's potential failure and pollution.

John Engel, a member of the Executive Committee of the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club and a retired project manager for a consulting engineering company, spoke about the danger to groundwater and the lack of data to guarantee the life of the liner system.******

[Editor's Note: Video reports of the following speakers' testimonies can be accessed directly on YouTube by clicking on their names below.]

Noting that Aquila's amendment appears to be a rough draft with vague, imprecise language, obsolete dates and other flaws, Paula Mohan of Madison, Wis., challenged DEQ officials to demand better data from Aquila and to respect the Menominee Nation's cultural resources.

Tom Boerner, adjacent landowner, noted he is participating with Menominee tribal members in a contested case against the Back 40 mining project.

Adjacent landowner Tina Lesperance, who owns property on the Menominee River, warned of the dangers of flooding in the area of the mine site.

Mary Kay Baum of Ridgeway, Wis., spoke about the unknown risks of climate change and dangers posed by the large amount of tailings from the proposed Back 40 mining project.

Lenny Allgeyer of Menominee, Mich., warned of the great risk to the water and public health should the Back 40 mine be constructed. "If Flint, Michigan, has told us anything about our water, it's that it's very fragile, and its quality can be easily compromised," Allgeyer said. "And once it's damaged it's very difficult to fix it -- impossible." 

Laurel Anderson, who has lived on the Menominee River for 47 years, warned that the tailings facilty proposed for the Back 40 mine would be a "disaster waiting to happen."

Tony Cory of Stephenson, Mich., said he was at the meeting to speak for those who could not speak for themselves -- the animals.

DEQ: Law enforcement invited for meeting security

Some comments on social media indicated participants were surprised, but not intimidated, by the number of law enforcement officers present at the meeting.

David Joe Bates, Bad River Tribe elder, said on Facebook, "I was very surprised at the show of force. Personally I wasn't intimidated. Thought it was a bit much."

Law enforcement officers at the Jan. 9, 2019, DEQ public meeting were stationed inside the gym and outside in the halls. (Photo © and courtesy David Joe Bates)

Law enforcement officers from three different departments were present at this public meeting -- approximately 25 in all, according to Menominee County Sheriff Kenny Marks, who told Keweenaw Now that the number was based on previous meetings on the Aquila mining project that attracted 500 or more participants.

"I was quite surprised the numbers were down," Marks said.

Law enforcement officials attempt to have about 5 percent police personnel for the estimated number of participants, he explained. Since past meetings also attracted protesters in the streets of Stephenson and the County Sheriff's department has a contract to protect the City of Stephenson, they must also take that possibility into consideration.

"When we know there's a potential for protest, we're there to protect the protesters and the rest of the public," Marks explained.

Law enforcement at the Jan. 9 meeting included mostly his Sheriff's deputies, some Michigan State Police officers, and two DNR conservation officers. He noted the Jan. 9 meeting was no problem at all.

"Everyone was peaceful and professional," he said. "The orderly process in which the DEQ runs the meeting lends itself to having a peaceful event or hearing."

Steve Casey, DEQ Upper Peninsula district coordinator and meeting moderator, said the DEQ determines the need for law enforcement based on meetings statewide; thus a problem at a meeting about Enbridge downstate could influence their perception of security needs at this meeting in Stephenson.

"The DEQ and law enforcement agencies determine the level of security," Casey said.

In answer to a question on why bags needed to be checked at the door (by DNR conservation officers), Casey noted, "Our world has changed, and we have to let the law enforcement professionals determine appropriate security."

The important thing, according to Casey, is that everyone gets a chance to speak in a safe manner. At a previous meeting on the Aquila mining project, someone was booed and the moderator's directions weren't being followed.

Casey was satisfied with the orderly participation at the Jan. 9 meeting.

"I thought the meeting went extremely well," he said. "The audience was passionate but didn't disrupt the meeting. Everyone had a chance to speak in the time allotted, and the meeting ended exactly on time."

Comments on the Aquila Back Forty permit will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Feb. 6 (EST). Mail comments to Back Forty Mining Permit Amendment, MDEQ-OGMD, 1504 West Washington Street, Marquette, MI 49855, or email comments to with "Back Forty Mining Permit Amendment" as the subject. The MDEQ has been asked to extend the Public Comment deadline, but no decision has been announced. You may contact Melanie Humphrey for an update on the extension request: 906-250-7564,
Click here for instructions for reviewing the Back Forty permit materials.


* Ron Henriksen's comments are also available here.

** For more details, see "Aquila Back Forty Mine Permit Amendment -- Public Comments of Al Gedicks" on the Mining Action Group Web site. For details on the "Menominee Crack" click here.

*** Click here to read some of the Menominee Tribe's objections to the Back 40 mining project.

**** See Guy Reiter's comments toward the end of the meeting here. UPDATE: Also, while some federal regulation has been delegated to the State of Michigan, the Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to oversee Michigan DEQ permitting. See this Michigan Radio article: "If the EPA is eliminated, what would Michigan lose?"

***** Comments by Andi Rich of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River are here.

****** Click here to read John Engel's comments and the position of the Sierra Club.