MARQUETTE - A Big Bay citizens group challenging state permit decisions made in extending electric lines to the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. mine have decided to try to settle its grievances with the state.
Administrative Law Judge Richard Patterson recently gave Concerned Citizens of Big Bay leader Gene Champagne until next Friday to file an initial status report indicating whether the group plans to pursue settlement negotiations with the state's Office of Geological Survey or move forward with a contested case hearing on the issue.
Champagne said Sunday the group will mail its official response to Lansing today.
"Concerned Citizens of Big Bay has decided to pursue a negotiated settlement with the Department of Environmental Quality/Department of Natural Resources and Environment at this time. As long as good faith negotiations take place, we see it as an opportunity to save the court and the state some time and money," Champagne said. "We have asked that negotiations either take place in Marquette County or are conducted via conference call or some Internet means, such as Skype. We are working citizens who can ill afford to take time off of work to travel to Lansing. We have no attorney to speak for us."
Last month, Champagne's grassroots citizens group petitioned the state Office of Administrative Hearings for a contested case hearing, alleging regulatory failure of due process and enforcement by the DNRE in its oversight and enforcement of the state's Part 632 law, governing non-ferrous mining projects.
The group contends the DNRE erred in action or inaction in granting a permit amendment to Kennecott in December, which governed Kennecott changing its electric source for the mine from diesel generators to electric power.
Champagne said the DNRE should have also required a permit amendment from Kennecott when the company contracted with the Alger Delta Cooperative Electric Association to run a combination of buried and overhead lines roughly 32 miles from Marquette to the mine. Kennecott funded the $8 million line upgrade undertaken by Alger Delta.
The group claims there were no environmental assessments, reclamation plans, contingency plans, review of financial insurances, nor provision or opportunity for public comment.
In a contested case hearing proceeding, a recommendation based on sworn testimony, stipulations and hearing exhibits presented would be made by Patterson to Michigan DEQ Director Dan Wyant. Wyant would review Patterson's recommendation and make a final decision. That ruling could be appealed to circuit court by either of the parties.
Hal Fitch, chief of the state Office of Geological Survey, said previously the state believes it acted properly and the agency is confident in its position.
The negotiations will be conducted with Fitch's office. But Champagne's group wants Fitch excluded from the talks because Fitch "used his authority to approve the amendment for electrical power and extensions that are in dispute."
Fitch said today the agency is open to negotiations, including his exclusion.
"I guess when it comes to negotiations, certainly everything is on the table," Fitch said. "When we get their response we'll take a look at it and see what our response is."
Champagne's group has a series of remedies it is seeking from the state.
"The reliefs sought in our petition are our starting point in negotiations. We hope that the DNRE show integrity and are judicious in what they are willing to negotiate," Champagne said.
Officials with Kennecott and Alger Delta have been monitoring the progress of the case. Unlike in a previous contested case hearing on a surface use lease, Kennecott is not precluded from continuing work on the mine while the matter is being settled, Fitch said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.