Records: Upper Peninsula mine approved despite concerns

Walleye along with yellow perch, suckers and smallmouth bass could again swim the winding Boardman River beyond downtown Traverse City to forage for food or spawn in submerged vegetation, as they did more than a century ago.

DETROIT — Over and over, Michigan environmental regulators sounded alarms as they reviewed a proposed large, open-pit ore mine in the Upper Peninsula near the Menominee River, prized for walleye fishing and a major tributary to Lake Michigan.

The mine would send acidic mining wastes into the river and surrounding waterways, which would then spill into the Great Lake, staff said. More acres of wetlands would be harmed than the mining company was projecting, evaluators found.

Then the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and then-Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved the mine anyway.

The Detroit Free Press reports that at stake in whether the Back Forty Mine proceeds is the potential endangerment of one of the most important rivers in Michigan, part of a system that drains more than 4,000 square miles of the U.P. and northern Wisconsin, and a river culturally iconic to the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin, whose creation story includes that they come from the river’s mouth. Sacred burial grounds of the tribe are potentially threatened by the mine. The tribe is now among those appealing wetlands and surface water permit approvals for the mine.

The level of DEQ staff concern, and at times frustration, with Canadian company Aquila Resources’ plan to mine for gold, zinc and copper within 150 feet of the river _ in the western U.P. on the Michigan-Wisconsin border _ has only now come to light, through agency documents presented as evidence in the appeal pending before an administrative law judge.

The open-pit sulfide mine would operate on 83 acres and its pit would be 2,000 feet by 2,500 feet, and 750 feet deep, according to the company. The life of the mine is planned at approximately seven years, and Aquila estimates it will produce:

  • 512 million pounds of zinc.
  • 468,000 ounces of gold.
  • 51 million pounds of copper
  • 24 million pounds of lead..
  • 4.5 million ounces of silver.

An on-site processing mill also will crush and refine minerals and ores through flotation, separation and the use of cyanide, according to the company’s plans.

The DEQ emails, letters and memos show concern that Aquila Resources and its engineering firm, Green Bay, Wisconsin-based Foth Infrastructure and Environment, LLC, was understating the project’s impact on the river and surrounding wetlands, according to regulators. The methods Aquila was using to measure wetlands impacts were improper, and the mining company wasn’t changing them, DEQ staff said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shared similar concerns, documents show.

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