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Controversial UP mining project one step closer to reality with new permit

Menominee River
Wikimedia Commons
Menominee River

Michigan’s first potential new gold mine since the late 1800s now has three of four permits it needs to open.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued a surface water permit for the Back Forty Project this month.

That proposal is an open-pit sulfide mine located along the Menominee River in the Upper Peninsula. A group of investors, led by the Canadian mining company Aquila, plans to mine the site for gold, copper and zinc.

Steve Casey, UP District Supervisor for the MDEQ’s Water Resources Division, says the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the Back Forty was issued only after “a very thorough review.”

“I’ve been doing this for 38 years, and this is the first permit I’ve ever seen that has extensive monitoring requirements for the water quality around the entire area of the mine,” Casey said, adding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also reviewed the permit and made recommendations that were included in the final version.

Casey says Aquila will have to monitor 20 sites in the surrounding area and do quarterly testing for a number of indicators. “So we’re not only looking at the quality of the discharge, but we’re also requiring that the company report on what’s happening to the environment around the mine,” he said.

According to the MDEQ, “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 NPDES permit provides limitations and monitoring requirements for water discharged to the Menominee River during mine operation.

The Back Forty Project had already secured mining and air quality permits, Casey said. It needs just one more to go forward, for wetlands, inland lakes and streams.

Casey says that one will probably prove “most “challenging” for Aquila. An initial permit application was rejected as incomplete; the company is expected to provide that information and get the review process rolling at the end of June.

The Back Forty Project is the third major proposed UP mining operation in the past 10 years. It’s drawn some pushback from both environmental groups and Native American tribesin the area, who are particularly concerned about the possibility and impacts of sulfuric acid pollution.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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