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Opponents of a proposed mine on the Menominee River in Michigan say a spill of acid wastewater could endanger the river's lake sturgeon.

Final approval could come as soon as next summer for a proposed 83-acre open pit mine along the Menominee River, which runs along the border between Wisconsin and Michigan.

Conservationists and the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin have expressed concerns that the mine could harm the river, Menominee effigy mounds and other culturally significant features on the mine site.

The Menominee River, which embodies the tribe’s creation story, is also a bass fishing destination and the spawning grounds for one of the largest populations of lake sturgeon in the Lake Michigan basin.

Menominee tribe chairwoman Joan Delabreau said Friday the tribe is considering legal action to protect sacred sites.

“If it’s going to be a legal battle, that’s something the Menominee have never shied away from,” Delabreau said.

The Menominee ceded the land along the river to the U.S. government in 1836, but it never gave up its right to protect places that are important to tribal culture and history, Delabreau said.

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has been monitoring the applications Toronto-based Aquila Resources Inc. has filed in Michigan for permits it needs to begin digging its $260 million, 750-foot-deep pit.

But it’s in Michigan, at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, where the decision will be made on whether Aquila’s Back Forty project will be able to extract gold, zinc, copper and silver for the expected 16-year life of the mine.

The Michigan DEQ last month granted preliminary approval to three of the permits Aquila needs. The public comment periods end Nov. 3 for the permits that would allow the mining operation, discharge of treated wastewater into the river, and air emissions.

Last month, the company withdrew its application for a permit to disturb wetlands on its 780-acre site after the DEQ discovered that it was based on outdated state maps that didn’t identify all of the environmentally sensitive areas.

After maps are updated, the company plans to submit a new application, probably in January, which will mean state and federal reviews will be complete this summer, Aquila vice president of U.S. operations Cliff Nelson said Friday.

Construction of the mine — including a wastewater treatment plant and other structures designed to prevent water polluted with hazardous acid or metals from leaching into the aquifer or spilling into the river — should be complete in late 2019, Nelson said.

Aquila said it will create hundreds of temporary construction jobs and longer-lasting mining positions.

While acknowledging occasional disastrous discharges of pollutants from holding ponds at other mines around the world, the DEQ’s Joe Maki said he was confident that Aquila’s design would protect the Menominee River and the area’s groundwater.

But others aren’t so sure. Hundreds of people have spoken at hearings and through written comments, and it’s likely most are against the mine, Maki said.

Among the groups fighting the project are the Keshena-based Menominee tribe, several conservation groups in Michigan and the County Board for Marinette County, which is downstream of the mine site.

They have questioned whether the mine is designed with enough precautions, or whether any mine that excavates millions of tons of waste rock that can release serious pollutants should be placed within a few hundred feet of a river.

Mines that extract metals typically uncover sulfide ores that create sulfuric acid when exposed to air or water.

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

But critics 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.

“There has never been a sulfide mine that hasn’t polluted surrounding waters,” said Alexandra Maxwell, executive director of the Marquette, Michigan-based Save the Wild U.P.

Ladysmith mine cited

In response to criticism focusing on the mine’s location on the river’s edge, Aquila representatives have pointed to the Flambeau Mining Co. operation that extracted copper, gold and silver from a 32-acre pit near the Flambeau River near Ladysmith in Wisconsin from 1993 to 1997.

The Wisconsin DNR has maintained it operated without polluting, despite contrary claims by environmentalists.

But the DNR’s top mining regulator said the comparison isn’t a good one, because the Flambeau mine shipped its ore to Canada for processing, greatly reducing the volume of hazardous sulfide material on the site. Aquila plans to process its ore on site.

“To say it’s just like the Flambeau because it’s next to the river, that’s a stretch,” said Ann Coakley, who oversees mining as director of the DNR waste and materials management bureau in Rhinelander.

“I would not compare any mine to another mine,” Coakley said. “The formations of the surrounding geology and the hydrology are different everywhere.”

Coakley and her department took a detailed look at Aquila’s plan for treating and discharging wastewater into the Menominee River. They had concerns, but when they contacted Michigan DEQ, they were told regulators there were already addressing those problems.

Coakley said it appears the wastewater discharge would meet Wisconsin standards, which are in some areas more strict than Michigan’s and in others less so.

Aquila’s application is designed to comply with Michigan law. The DNR didn’t analyze the thousands of pages of technical materials to determine conclusively that it would pass muster under Wisconsin statutes, and hasn’t yet decided if it will submit anything as part of the public comment process.

Sacred sites

David Overstreet, a retired Marquette University archaeologist who has been providing technical advice to the tribe, said he is concerned the mounds and other ancient features at the mine site could be at risk if an accident occurred involving acid waste.

“It’s an archeological landscape that is just irreplaceable and it would be a tragedy if it was destroyed,” Overstreet said.

Delabreau, the Menominee tribe chairwoman, said about two dozen ancient, culturally significant sites, such as effigy mounds, ceremonial fire rings and raised community gardens, have been mapped along the river on property Aquila owns or plans to acquire.

The fact that the company’s archaeological survey found all of them on the north or south portions of the riverbank — and none in the middle where the mine, ore processing and waste treatment plant are planned — prompted Delabreau to question its accuracy and call for an independent survey.

At a meeting this year with tribal representatives, Michigan DEQ’s Maki said, the department tentatively agreed to make it a condition of Aquila’s permit to inform the tribe if construction crews unearth anything of possible archaeological significance.

That way the tribe could participate in the state’s normal process of investigating such finds, Maki said.

But Delabreau scoffed at the idea that a bulldozer driver would necessarily recognize pottery shards or remnants of human remains.

Nelson, the Aquila vice president, said the company has created buffer zones around the cultural features that have been mapped and tribal members in most circumstances could be escorted to visit them.

Menominee representatives have toured the property and taken part in several meetings, but haven’t responded to recent invitations, he said.

“They’ve taken a stance to fight the mine rather than work with us,” Nelson said.

Less leverage

In Wisconsin, tribes have a right to be involved in decisions that affect resources such as waters and cultural sites that are significant to them because the federal government plays a stronger role.

But because the federal government has granted additional authority to Michigan for enforcing the Clean Water Act, there is no requirement that the state consult with the tribe. New Jersey is the only other state with that level of autonomy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency learned of the tribe’s concerns and asked Michigan officials to coordinate with the Menominee tribal archeologists and Michigan’s historical preservation office even though the state had no legal obligation to do so. The DEQ’s Maki said he had reached out to several tribes before the EPA made the request.

Delabreau said formal, legally required consultation would have given the tribe leverage. The informal meetings have given them nothing of the sort, she said.

Delabreau said she hasn’t received invitations from Aquila for talks with the company. It might make the company’s permit applications look better if it can say it met with the tribe, but mining executives have no reason to negotiate, she said.

Nelson insisted that there could be some common ground that could be found, but he acknowledged that there was no need to make concessions. If the company’s permit applications are in order, Michigan’s 2004 mining law requires that the DEQ give its approval, Nelson said.