MARQUETTE - In the wake of Thursday's Michigan Department of Environmental Quality decision not to issue a permit to the Marquette County Road Commission for its County Road 595 project, Rio Tinto now plans to redirect its efforts toward upgrading existing roadways to transport copper and nickel from its Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill.
Road Commission Engineer-Manager Jim Iwanicki said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's refusal to remove objections to the project prevented the DEQ from issuing a permit that had the required federal backing.
"It's a shame that the EPA has killed a good project," Iwanicki said. "The EPA's action is going to affect a lot of lives in Marquette County and the road commission believes it will affect them negatively."
The proposed 21-mile, north-south County Road 595 was slated to run from County Road AAA in Michigamme Township to U.S. 41 in Humboldt Township, providing a more direct hauling route for Rio Tinto and affording additional safety, recreational and economic development benefits for county residents.
The DEQ previously approved Rio Tinto trucking ore from the Eagle Mine using County Road AAA, County Road 510 and then County Road 550 to Marquette. The route would then use Sugarloaf Avenue, Wright Street, County Road HQ, U.S. 41, M-95 and then County Road 601 to the mill.
Rio Tinto had agreed to fund the $82 million County Road 595 project, provided the permits required could be obtained and construction started by this May. The mining company has been awaiting the outcome of the County Road 595 permitting process.
"While we are disappointed with this decision, it does give us clarity as we look to production in 2014," said Dan Blondeau, communications and media adviser for Rio Tinto in Humboldt. "Our focus now turns to existing trucking routes as we originally outlined in our mine permit application. We'll work with the Marquette County Road Commission and local units of government to utilize the existing routes."
Iwanicki said a group of contractors - including Payne and Dolan and Bacco Construction - had already been named to work on either County Road 595 or upgrading the existing roads in Rio Tinto's transportation route. Work will now focus on improving those roads to primary standard.
"Work on those projects will probably start this summer and finish up next summer," Iwanicki said.
The cost is expected to range between $40 million and $45 million, the majority of which will be paid by Rio Tinto, Iwanicki said.
In early December, the EPA lifted a previous objection to the road commission's alternatives analysis for the County Road 595 project, but reaffirmed its objection on minimization of impacts and compensatory mitigation plans for impacts to wetlands, streams and wildlife.
EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman in Chicago said according to law, the DEQ had 30 days from Dec. 4 to satisfy the EPA's reaffirmed objection by issuing a permit that includes minimization and mitigation plans consistent with requirements outlined by the EPA, or notify the agency the DEQ intended to deny the road commission's permit application.
Absent such action by the DEQ, the authority to process the application would transfer to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The application process would then have to restart.
Iwanicki said the EPA "stonewalled" road commission efforts to comply with the agency's request in several phone conversations held with the road commission, EPA and DEQ in December.
"The EPA moved the bar every time we got close," Iwanicki said. "Throughout the whole process, it's been an ever-changing target."
The road commission responded on Dec. 27 to the EPA's requirements for removing its remaining objections, but Iwanicki said it became clear before Christmas, the federal agency would not be satisfied.
DEQ staff, who Iwanicki said originally opposed the project but were good in trying to find reasonable solutions to get the project built, were sent on holidays rather than working through Christmas in a fruitless effort, Iwanicki said.
In a letter Thursday, DEQ Director Dan Wyant wrote to Hedman announcing the DEQ would not be issuing a permit for the County Road 595.
"As we have discussed previously, I believe that there are reasons to support the approval of this project," Wyant wrote. "However, this letter serves as formal notification that due to the short time frame allowed by statute and the complexity of the issues remaining, the Michigan DEQ is not issuing a permit for Marquette County Road 595."
On its website Thursday, the EPA said it had received Wyant's notification and the permitting authority had now transferred to the Army Corps.
"Since April 2012, EPA has worked closely with Michigan DEQ and the county to develop a mitigation plan to finalize a state permit for the project," the EPA statement read.
The basis for the EPA's objection was the project's impacts to aquatic resources were significant and proposed mitigation would not sufficiently compensate for impacts.
In late August, a new proposal was announced for mitigation that would preserve 1,576 acres, including 647 wetland acres, near the McCormick Wilderness.
In addition, the road commission originally proposed filling 25.8 acres of wetlands and constructing 22 stream crossings in building County Road 595. The county instead planned to fill 24.3 acres of wetlands, replace 19 steam crossings and build seven others.
Iwanicki said the agency never liked the project from the start and for months worked to change expectations and requirements. He said Thursday's official finality to the project was expected and was "just the bow on the package."
"They played a good game of bureaucratic nonsense," Iwanicki said of the EPA.
With Rio Tinto now shifting its funding and focus to the existing transportation route projects, Iwanicki said the necessary County Road 595 project permit will not be pursued through the Army Corps.
"Funding for this project has been tied to Rio Tinto and if there's no funding available we can't very well build it," Iwanicki said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.