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Saturday, January 30, 2021

UPDATED: Health Department announces discounts for certain food establishments; vaccine supply limited

HANCOCK -- The Western Upper Peninsula Health Department (WUPHD) this week announced some good news for food establishments that have consistently complied with Michigan’s Epidemic Orders. At the same time, WUPHD thanks the public for their patience as vaccine supplies trickle in.

Annual fee discount offered for compliant food establishments

At it’s regular Board of Health meeting on Monday, January 25, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department (WUPHD) voted in a one-time annual license fee discount for food service establishments that have consistently complied with Michigan’s Epidemic Orders. The twenty-five percent discount will apply to local annual inspection fees only and not the state license fee.

"The Board wanted to recognize the facilities in our jurisdiction that have worked hard over the last few months to help keep our communities safe," said Kate Beer, Health Officer for WUPHD. "The discount will be available for certain establishments renewing their license during the current year, typically by April 30."

The agency is currently working on the details of the new discount policy and will have information available for eligible facilities when renewal notices are mailed. WUPHD licenses over 400 food establishments across the five-county region -- which includes Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties.

Click here for more information on WUPHD's Food Protection Program.

COVID-19 vaccine supply continues to trickle in

WUPHD extends gratitude to the public for their patience as the COVID-19 vaccination process continues to evolve.

The vaccine supply coming to the area continues to be very limited at this time. The forecast from the state is that this pattern may continue for the next several weeks as the state wrestles with low shipments from the federal government and the need to make sure that vaccine is distributed equitably across the state.

"We have started administering second doses of the vaccine that were received from the state this week," said Kate Beer, Health Officer for WUPHD. "Some first doses were received, but they have already been scheduled out as we continue to work through the Phase 1B priority groups."

Residents are encouraged to watch for additional announcements regarding vaccine clinic availability from the health department and other healthcare providers.

Michigan is currently in Phase 1B of the COVID-19 vaccination effort. Phase 1B includes residents age 65 and older; frontline essential workers including police officers, first responders, frontline state and federal workers and jail and prison staff; and preK-12 teachers and childcare providers. The overall strategy is to have residents 65 and older reach out to the health department or their healthcare provider to schedule a vaccination. Frontline essential workers should reach out to their employer for additional information, as WUPHD expects to work directly with employers to coordinate clinics for their workers.

For more information on COVID-19 please visit www.wupdhd.org, michigan.gov/coronavirus or cdc.gov/coronavirus.

Editor's  UPDATE:

Joshua Vissers of Late Edition posted a detailed article Sunday, Jan. 31, on the present situation of vaccines in the local area, including an interview with Kate Beer, Health Officer for WUPHD. See his article, "Vaccine progress stalling," and other articles of local interest.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Guest article: Aquila's Empty Promises

[Editor's Note: This article appeared as a letter to the editor in The Peshtigo Times on Dec. 29, 2020. It is reprinted here with permission.]

By Al Gedicks*

The 2,472 pages of Aquila’s recently submitted Dam Safety permit application for its Back 40 mining project are exclusively focused on the engineering aspects of the proposed tailings dam near the Menominee River. There is no discussion of the corporate organizational and human causes of catastrophic failures like the January 2019 Brazilian tailings dam failure that killed 270 people.

A recent report from the consulting firm ERM noted that the engineering causes of tailings dam failures are well known but warned that the organizational and human causes of tailings dam failures are just as significant (www.erm.com/insights/navigating-the-esg-of-tailings-management/).

ERM has reviewed the incident reports of 11 major dam failures that have occurred in the last 12 years. They concluded that "basic organizational and human factors, such as budgeting, operational leadership, safety and risk culture, and competence, played a significant role in each."

This raises a serious concern about Aquila’s ability to manage the construction, operation, monitoring and emergency action plan for their proposed tailings dam. Aquila’s dam safety application states that "if any potential failure were to develop, it would be detected at an early stage followed by prompt corrective action and remediation. As such, tailings and water would never reach lands adjacent to the Project or the Menominee River."

Why should the public trust Aquila’s ability to closely monitor all aspects of tailings dam safety when it has failed to comply with the minimal legal requirements for conducting business in the state of Wisconsin? According to the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI), Aquila’s registration to conduct business in Wisconsin was revoked on October 21, 2015, because it failed to file annual reports and pay fees. The Sierra Club of Wisconsin has filed a complaint with the DFI showing that Aquila has conducted business on multiple occasions from 2015 through at least 2019 despite the revocation. Aquila either controls or owns two mineral deposits in Wisconsin in Marathon and Taylor counties.

Under state law, Aquila cannot continue to conduct business until it pays all outstanding fees, a fine, and must reapply for authorization to conduct business as a foreign corporation.

"This complaint shows that Aquila Resources can’t be trusted to follow Wisconsin law. Will Aquila Resources respect Michigan law if it gains permits for the Back Forty mine proposal in Michigan along the Menominee River? Michigan and Wisconsin residents along the Menominee River and downstream now have more reason to doubt the promises of this company," said David Blouin, State Mining Committee Chair.

When it comes to evaluating the risk of a tailings dam failure and the release of toxic mine tailings into the Menominee River, the public requires more than empty promises of dam safety oversight. Aquila’s track record to date provides no such assurance.**

* Guest author Al Gedicks is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council. He is the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations, South End Press, 2001. 

** Professor Gedicks will give a presentation on the current status of the "Back Forty Mine" as proposed by the Canadian company Aquila Resources at 7:30 p.m. (ET)/6:30 p.m. (CT) on Tuesday, Feb. 16, via Zoom.  Opposed by numerous counties, tribal governments, and a host of environmental organizations, the proposed mine construction was recently stalled when a Michigan judge overturned Aquila’s wetland permit. Find out why the Back Forty name is very misleading and why this proposed mine would be a threat to the Menominee River, which flows into Green Bay just a few miles away from Door County peninsula. What are Aquila Resources' options now that the wetland permit is overturned?

Get a full update and have your questions answered at this online event. Register at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/professor-al-gedicks-to-provide-the-latest-update-on-the-back-forty-mine-tickets-137879771107

You will receive a Zoom link a week before the event and a reminder the day before the event.

Read about the judge's decision to deny the wetland permit here.

Inset photo: Al Gedicks speaks out against the Back 40 mining project during one of the public hearings on permits held in Stephenson, Michigan. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

UPDATE:  Dale Burie, President of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River is asking for your help. Aquila Resources has submitted their application to EGLE of Michigan for their Tailings Dam Permit using the "Upstream" method for their tailings dam. The Upstream Method is the most vulnerable method to failure. Failure of this type of dam would be a sure recipe for disaster for the Menominee River. The Coalition is  requesting all environmental groups and their members to go to http://www.jointherivercoalition.org and click the "Blue" button on the home page, which will open up the page for you to add your information and comment on the objection to the suggested "Upstream Method" that Aquila Resources has made in their application to EGLE. When you click on the "submit" button at the end of the page it will be forwarded to all the decision makers listed on the page.

Houghton City Council to meet Jan. 27 via Zoom

HOUGHTON -- The Houghton City Council will hold a regular meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27, by remote participation in accordance with Public Act 254 of 2020. The meeting will include setting two public hearings -- one for Proposed Ordinance 2020-315 and one for Proposed Ordinance 2020-314.

According to Houghton City Clerk Ann Vollrath, these public hearings require a 15-day notice. Although the agenda for this City Council meeting has indicated a public hearing on 314 as "possibly" being set at this Council meeting, it will be set as a separate public hearing now that the Planning Commission has recommended it to the Council, Vollrath explained.

That recommendation followed a lengthy Planning Commission public hearing on Proposed Ordinance 314 on Tuesday, Jan. 26. After hearing from members of the public on both sides of the issue of rezoning an area along Canal Road and bordering on the Portage Canal from R-1 (single-family residential) to B-2 (community business), the Planning Commission voted to send Ordinance 314 to the City Council for their decision. The area proposed to be rezoned is on the Torch Lake Superfund former Michigan Smelter site.*

Proposed Ordinance 315 is intended to re-zone another parcel on Canal Road, near the UPPCO building, from R-1 to B-2 for the Isle Royale Seaplane Service.

ACCESS to Jan. 27 City Council meeting:

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Meeting ID: 870 7775 2524
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Click here for the Agenda. 

Click here for the Council Packet, which includes maps of the areas that would be rezoned under Ordinance 315 and 314.

* Watch for an article on the Jan. 26 Houghton Planning Commission public hearing.

Monday, January 25, 2021

UPDATED: City of Houghton Planning Commission to hold Public Hearing on proposed rezoning Ordinance 314 at Jan. 26 meeting

This aerial view shows the area of the former Michigan Smelter site under the Torch Lake Superfund. The light grey, striped area marks the covered tailings. This area appears to include the site proposed for rezoning to B-2 under Ordinance 314. (Screenshot from EPA Fact Sheet, August 2012) 

HOUGHTON --  A Meeting of the City of Houghton Planning Commission will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, by remote participation in accordance with Public Act 254 of 2020. The meeting will include a Public Hearing on Proposed Zoning Ordinance 2020-314.

The original proposed Ordinance 314 included rezoning from single-family residential (R-1) to community business (B-2) -- of an area under the Torch Lake Superfund former Michigan Smelter site bordering on the Portage Canal and Canal Road in Houghton. Because of community objections, a wetland and area near Cole's Creek was removed from the proposed rezoning and the Public Hearing was re-scheduled from Jan. 13 to Jan. 26. However, residents still have objections to the rezoning since proposed development could occur on a Superfund site. More than 500 local residents have signed a petition against this rezoning proposal.*

Proposed Ordinance 314 would permit the construction of a major 5-storey hotel, restaurants, taverns, and bars. The extensive excavation necessary for this type of large-scale construction could expose slag tailings from the Michigan Smelter capped at the site by the EPA Torch Lake Superfund. The Michigan Smelter was the largest copper smelter in Michigan producing over 300,000 pounds of copper per day.

UPDATE: Keweenaw Now received this statement today, Jan. 26, from Nabil Fayoumi, EPA Region 5 remedial project manager in the Superfund and Emergency Management Division: "The EPA is not an interested party at tonight’s City of Houghton public hearing as re-zoning is a local matter and EPA has placed no restrictions on changing the zoning of the affected parcels. There are restrictions in place to protect the Torch Lake remedy, which consists of soil cover and institutional controls in the forms of covenants, and any development of those properties would have to maintain the integrity of the remedy."*

In a Rezoning Standards Worksheet recently submitted to the Planning Commission, a group of residents opposed to the rezoning state, "Entire area is a deleted Torch Lk Superfund location (Michigan Smelter, OU3) with a soil+vegetation cap ... The buried mine waste contains hazardous chemicals, some carcinogenic. Also, the entire area is in a 100-yr flood plain."

Proposed Zoning Ordinance 315, to re-zone another parcel on Canal Road, near the UPPCO building, from R-1 to B-2 for the Isle Royale Seaplane Service is related to the proposed Ordinance 314. While 315 is not officially included under this Public Hearing, the Seaplane Service site could be rezoned to B-2 along with the area included under 314, since the two ordinances were proposed together. Opponents to the rezoning have noted that the correct zoning for the Seaplane Service should be I-1, Industrial.

MEETING ACCESS:

Join Zoom Meeting here:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89390156012

Meeting ID: 893 9015 6012

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Meeting ID: 893 9015 6012

Find your local number: https://us02web.zoom.us/u/kbIalczgts

Click here for the agenda.

Click here for the packet of documents related to this meeting.

* Editor's Notes:

See Keweenaw Now's Dec. 16, 2020, article, "Residents concerned over City of Houghton proposed re-zoning along Canal Road; wetland, Cole's Creek to remain protected in R-1 zoning."

See also: "EPA Requesting Property Owners to Add Deed Restrictions."

Click here for the petition, "Stop Houghton City Ordinance 2020 - 314 and 315."