MARQUETTE - From anger, contempt and frustration to relief and gratitude, this week's Michigan Department of Environmental Quality decision not to grant a permit for the Marquette County Road 595 project has drawn a range of reaction.
The $82 million project would have built a 21-mile north-south road from County Road AAA to U.S. 41, providing a more direct route for Rio Tinto to haul nickel and copper from its Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill. In addition, the road was to provide safety, recreational and economic development benefits and opportunities for county residents.
Marquette County Road Com-
mission 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 which had the required federal backing.
"They never liked this project from the start," Iwanicki said, referring to the EPA, saying the agency put up several roadblocks, stalled and continued to raise the bar in its expectations.
Marquette County Board Chairwoman Deborah Pellow agreed.
She said though the DEQ ultimately refused to issue the permit, the EPA is responsible for the denial, costing the area jobs and other benefits.
"They're out of control," Pellow said. "They didn't do their job at all. They cost us money and I wish there was a way we could sue them."
Pellow said though there were staff at the DEQ who didn't support the project, they worked with the road commission and county officials to clearly detail what expectations were required. The DEQ ultimately told the EPA it had good cause to approve the project.
"They (the DEQ staff) were fair, honest and above board and the EPA was none of those," Pellow said. "What they've done is appalling. They're supposed to work for the people, not against them."
U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, RCrystal Falls, is expected to meet with road commission officials next week.
"I am deeply disappointed to learn the Michigan DEQ will not be granting a permit for this jobcreating project in the Upper Peninsula.?The EPA's costly regulations have proved too high a hurdle for this project and it will cost Northern Michiganders many good paying jobs," Benishek said.
"The fact is that if we can't build a privately funded road in Northern Michigan today without Washington regulators suffocating it, where can we build anything?"
The basis for the EPA's objection was impacts to aquatic resources with the project were significant and proposed mitigation would not sufficiently compensate for impacts. On Dec. 4, the EPA provided requirements to the road commission which needed to be satisfied within 30 days by law.
IwanickisaidtheEPA "stonewalled" road commission efforts to comply with the agency's request in several phone conversations held with the road commission, EPA and DEQ in Decem-ber. The road commission re-
sponded 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.
Catherine Parker, an environmental activist from Marquette who has worked hard to try to stop the County Road 595 project, said "although the road commission is blaming EPA for the permit denial, the truth is that no amount of mitigation could've made this a good project."
"The proposed County Road 595 would have directly impacted 122 wetland complexes and bisected a major wildlife corridor," Parker said. "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comments on the County Road 595 permit application state that 83 avian species were identified during surveys conducted along portions of the proposed route, and recommended that no habitat disturbance take place during nesting season-basically, from mid-April through mid-August. How do you mitigate for that?"
Rio Tinto had agreed to fund the County Road 595 project, provided the permits required could be obtained and construction started by May 2013. Without the road commission's permit being issued, Rio Tinto has decided to shift its focus and money to helping the road commission upgrade existing roads, which Rio Tinto will use to bring ore to the mill via a much longer route, through Marquette.
The DEQ previously approved Rio Tinto trucking ore from the Eagle Mine along County Road AAA to County Road 510 and then County Road 550 to Marquette and then along Sugarloaf Avenue to Wright Street to County Road HQ to U.S. 41 to M-95 to County Road 601 to the mill.
The cost to improve the county roads involved is roughly $45 million, with work expected to start this summer in anticipation of the mine's first production in 2014. Rio Tinto will fund the majority of the cost.
Parker said she's "relieved thatwecanfinally lay this issue to rest and direct our resources elsewhere, namely to improving existing roads."
Jessica Koski, a mining technical assistant with the Natural Resources Department of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, said the decision not to grant the permit for the project is "very gratifying news for a large tract of our treaty territory and our wetlands, streams, wildlife, traditional plants and cultural resources, and in light of KBIC's concerns for foreseeable additional impacts and development that this proposed road would likely facilitate."
Koski said the decision is also a victory for the integrity of the nation's Clean Water Act.
"The immediate refocus on existing routes demonstrates the continued avoidance of federal permitting authority and more comprehensive environmental review processes that should be associated with the Eagle sulfide mine and Humboldt Mill development project," Koski said. "Rio Tinto was originally planning to put the ore on a rail head to Ontario. As plans changed to process and leave the sulfide waste in our homelands for eternity at Humboldt, it seems the road was an afterthought or expected entitlement."
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.