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As Wisconsin lawmakers consider a bill aimed at attracting mining jobs, state residents are standing up against an open pit mine proposed for a site in Michigan 150 feet from the river that forms the state line.

The elected boards and councils of six counties, four municipalities and the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin oppose the Aquila Resources Back Forty project in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Opponents say it could drain acid into the Menominee River, a fishing destination that empties into Lake Michigan’s Green Bay.

The tribe is contesting a mining permit issued by Michigan. The mine would disturb culturally significant sites, tribal leaders said. They have petitioned two federal agencies to step in.

Dozens of ancient effigy mounds, ceremonial fire rings and raised community gardens have been mapped along the river on property Aquila owns or plans to acquire. The Menominee River embodies the tribe’s creation story.

The huge mine would unearth tons of sulfide rock, which reacts with air and water to create the acid, said Menominee chairman Gary Besaw.

“It’s too risky,” Besaw said. “Maybe in a hundred years, or maybe even in 30 years there will be technology that makes it safe, but right now we cannot put our water supply at risk.”

The Toronto-based mining company has obtained three permits it needs to begin digging for its Back Forty mine but lacks a fourth and final approval company officials had hoped to have by this summer.

The delay, however, doesn’t indicate the project is in trouble, said Joe Maki, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality mining specialist. The company started out using outdated wetland maps that didn’t show how much protected acreage is there, he said.

Aquila, which didn’t comment for this article, has obtained permits for mining operations, air pollution and discharges of waste water and storm water, but it also needs a permit that spells out how it plans to comply with laws protecting wetlands.

The Keshena-based Menominee tribe last month called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to consult with it on its claim that the federal government, not Michigan, should be deciding the wetland permit.

The Marinette County Board passed a resolution opposing the mine last year and the Marinette City Council followed suit in July, said Ken Keller, a member of both bodies as well as the city water and waste water commissions.

Keller said he shared the tribe’s concerns, adding that millions of dollars has been spent cleaning up the river and making recreational improvements.

And, he said, the city draws its drinking water from the bay a few hundred feet beyond the river’s mouth.

“If something would happen up there (at the mine), damn right, it could contaminate our water source,” Keller said.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, wrote an Aug. 18 letter supporting the tribe’s contention that if mine pollution reached the river it would seriously affect Wisconsin as well as Michigan.

“In this corner of Wisconsin, water resources define the landscape and the way of life,” Baldwin wrote. “From hosting international sport fishing competitions to the prominent tourism industry to the natural beauty that makes it a special place to live, the health of the Green Bay and its tributaries is extremely important to local communities.”

Baldwin noted that it has taken years and more than $26.5 million to clean up pollution left by industry on both sides of the river.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Rivers this year listed the Menominee River as one of the 10 most endangered in the U.S. because of the mine project.

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has no authority over Aquila permitting. However, a DNR staff review of a permit Aquila was issued in April to discharge storm water and treated waste water into the Menominee River indicated it met Wisconsin standards, said DNR spokesman Jim Dick.

“We will continue to monitor the ongoing permitting activities and if the project is developed, we will review the pertinent monitoring data to ensure the project remains in compliance with its discharge permit and all associated surface water quality requirements, including Wisconsin’s water quality standards,” Dick said.

Federal law allows more tribal influence

If federal agencies took the lead in permitting, U.S. law would give the tribe more say and a better opportunity to have sites of cultural and historical significance recognized and protected.

The federal government has granted Michigan more authority for enforcing water laws than most states, and tribal governments have fewer rights to intercede in state actions.

The tribe is arguing that the wetlands on the mine site are part of the Menominee River, which falls under federal jurisdiction both as a navigable waterway and as a waterway that plays a role in interstate commerce, said Besaw, the tribal chairman.

“They should not be able to delegate that (permitting) authority to the state,” Besaw said.

Maki said he has reached out to the Menominee and other tribes to involve them in permitting, the EPA has asked the state to coordinate with tribal archaeologists and Michigan’s historical preservation office even though the state had no legal obligation to do so.

But the tribe will have more leverage if the federal government is in charge, Besaw said.

Aquila officials have said they have invited tribal representatives to talk with them, but they acknowledged they wouldn’t be obligated to make concessions under state law.

Wisconsin’s Legislature is considering a bill that would relax mining regulations here. Aquila says two sites it has explored in Wisconsin won’t get further attention for at least five years because the company will be tied up with it’s Back Forty project in Michigan.

Besaw and others say the ore processing plant proposed for the Michigan mine could serve future mines in Wisconsin with the sulfide ore being trucked across the state. Aquila has projected the Back Forty mine would be in operation for 16 years.

Mine pollution

Maki, the Michigan mining regulator, acknowledged that no sulfide mine has operated without at least some pollution, but he said Aquila’s plans and the state’s monitoring program are a reasonable assurance that there wouldn’t be a major release of pollutants.

Waste rock and water would be stored in uphill locations that guarantee any spill would flow down into holding ponds and then into the mine pit. A wall would reinforce fractured bedrock and channel a spill away from the river, he said.

But critics have said the plans don’t adequately consider weaknesses in the bedrock under the wall, and the plans don’t properly account for the possibility of the river flooding.

Several other tribes and tribal associations oppose the mine, according to the Menominee Indian Tribe website, in addition to the Marinette County city of Peshtigo and towns of Wagner and Porterfield; and Door, Brown, Oconto, Menominee and Shawano counties. Wisconsin’s Menominee County has the same boundaries as the tribe’s reservation. Menominee County, Michigan, has also passed a resolution opposing the mine.


Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.