A controversial open pit sulfide mine proposal on the Menominee River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has received a key permit, moving the project closer to reality.
Toronto-based Aquila Resources announced that it received a water pollution permit needed to operate the mine from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. The permit will regulate discharge pollutants from the mine to the river.
Aquila Resources intends to mine gold and zinc from the area known as the “Back Forty.”
“The permit satisfies both State and Federal regulators as it pertains to protecting the Menominee River and surrounding watershed,” Aquila Resources CEO Barry Hildred said in a press release.
Open pit sulfide mines have long been controversial in Michigan’s water-rich Upper Peninsula and bordering northern Wisconsin. Without proper precaution, acid drainage could flow to the Menominee River.
The Menominee River discharges to Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
Announcing its approval of the permit, Michigan’s DEQ said that “significant provisions were added to the permit to require submittal and review of downstream ambient water quality data and protection of sensitive mussels in the Menominee River.”
The approval followed what MDEQ called a “comprehensive review and public comment period” and a review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The watchdog group Michigan Environmental Council “is not pleased with this permit” says Brad Garmon, the council’s Director of Conservation.
“There are too many open questions about the proposed techniques they would use to prevent acid mine drainage to nearby waters to feel confident in this permit or the operation,” Garmon told Great Lakes Now.
He said “sulfide mines are high-risk with big potential downsides” and Garmon is especially concerned about the fishery’s exposure to pollutants from the mine.
Garmon also called Michigan’s DEQ to account over its issuance of the permit saying “MDEQ is not holding Aquila to the standard of the law. It’s more interested in issuing permits than protecting the environment.”
The MDEQ’s District Coordinator, Steve Casey, disagrees with Garmon’s assertion. Casey told Great Lakes Now that the permit granted is “in strict compliance with the law.”
The “Back Forty” project could increase economic activity in the region by $160 million by 2021 according to a University of Minnesota-Duluth study.
Mining projects always generate jobs versus protecting the environment tradeoffs in areas in need of economic development like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The Michigan Environmental Council’s Garmon acknowledges the need for economic development in the region but says “the economy of the U.P needs to get more diverse.”
Garmon cited tourism, recreation and new economy jobs and said cities like Marquette and Duluth have been successful in attracting them.
The “Back Forty” project requires one more permit related to wetlands before it can proceed.