LANSING, Mich.—Supporters of the Menominee River scored a “significant” victory Monday when a Michigan judge denied a wetland permit for Aquila Resources in its quest to construct a mine in Menominee County.
Administrative Law Judge Daniel L. Pulter, of the Michigan Office of Administrative Hearings and Rulings, issued his decision denying the prior issuance of a wetland/stream/floodplain permit for Aquila’s Back Forty Project in Lake Township.
Tom Boerner—a petitioner in the case along with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River—spoke Tuesday evening to the importance of the judge’s ruling.
“This is huge, it’s very significant,” Boerner said. “I frankly think that if Aquila even had the money (to construct a mine), this puts them back years.
“I am in agreement with Judge Pulter’s decision. His decision mirrored the arguments we’ve been making to EGLE (formerly the Department of Environmental Quality) and ultimately in our contested case hearing. This decision is a very big win for the truth.”
Boerner, a former local resident, now lives in Kohler, Wisconsin. He owns 400 acres adjacent to the proposed mine site. He has been one of the leaders in the fight against the proposed mine.
“This issue has been going on for 20 years,” Boerner said. “It started in 2000 when people from Aquila claimed mineral rights that they didn’t own. That told me they weren’t honest people and from that point on, I scrutinized everything they did.
“I want to be clear on this, I’m not anti-mine. Mining has its place. I’m anti-pollution and I’m anti-potential disaster when you have a mine site like this 147 feet from the Menominee River, that will generate acid. You’re going to leave roughly 32 billion pounds of toxic waste on the site when you leave.”
Aquila officials offered their take on the ruling. According to a statement from the company, Pulter determined that Aquila’s groundwater model does not provide a reliable identification of wetland impacts and therefore found the permit application to be administratively incomplete. The judge also determined that Aquila did not provide a complete assessment of potential alternatives to its proposed plan, according to the statement.
Aquila states it strongly disagrees with Pulter’s decision, which is says is based in significant part on what the company believes is a misunderstanding of the information concerning the potential for indirect wetlands impacts associated with the Back Forty Project.
Aquila states it has worked for several years with EGLE staff during the permitting process to address the complex technical issues associated with estimating potential indirect wetland impacts, landing on an approach that complied with federal U.S. Army Corps guidelines for estimating and permitting such impacts for mining projects.
The company states in the 31 months since the wetlands permit was issued, Aquila has been working constructively with EGLE to satisfy the conditions, and the company planned to complete the updated groundwater model in 2021. Aquila says it will continue to work with EGLE and believes it will successfully resolve the issues cited in the judge’s decision.
Barry Hildred, president & CEO of Aquila, said, “Obviously, we are disappointed by the judge’s decision. The company is evaluating its alternatives, which include the submission of an updated permit application or appealing the decision to the EGLE environmental review panel. Aquila has worked diligently to limit impacts to surrounding wetlands and is only directly impacting 11.2 acres of regulated wetlands. Having reviewed the decision, we believe that Aquila will be able to resolve the cited issues and remain confident that Back Forty will be a safe, disciplined operation that promotes and supports local community socio-economic development and is protective of the environment.”
Aquila needs five permits in order to start construction of the open-pit mine. They already have been granted air quality and water discharge permits—something Boerner refers to as minor. The dam safety and mining permits are under review, while the wetlands permit now has been denied.
Boerner pointed out that Aquila does not currently have a valid mining permit. He said last year the company filed an amended mining permit application and that EGLE determined that because the changes were significant, the permit review process had to begin all over.
On Tuesday, Aquila asked for and received a two-month delay in the mining permit process.
Boerner said Aquila’s request to delay the permit process speaks volumes.
“In my opinion this action on Aquila’s part is the direct result of the judge’s decision outlining significant issues with Aquila’s information and Aquila’s lack of money,” he said.
Referring again to the wetlands permit denial, Boerner called the decision a victory for Menominee County tourism.
“This mine site would be one mile from Shakey Lakes County Park,” he said, adding that a loud mining operation would not coincide with a park.
“Can you imagine the people camping at Shakey Lakes trying to sleep at night with this going on?, he asked. “They would destroy the tourism in Menominee County. This is a great victory for the people who go to Shakey Lakes because they won’t have to deal with this—at least anytime soon. That park is the gem of Menominee County. If they didn’t have that park you lose half your tourism.”