MARQUETTE - Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials have extended the deadline until Oct. 1 for a state permitting decision on proposed Marquette County Road 595, and have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to hold a public hearing on its federal objection to issuing the project permits.
The DEQ has also asked the EPA to make its decision by Oct. 1 on whether the Marquette County Road Commission has satisfied the agency's objection. Road Commission Engineer-Manager Jim Iwanicki said that beyond that date, the possibility of any potential funding from the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. for building the road would likely be lost.
The proposed new 21-mile, north-south County Road 595 would run from County Road AAA in Michigamme Township to U.S. 41 in Humboldt Township. Among the uses and benefits cited for building the road include providing a more direct route for Kennecott to truck ore from its Eagle Mine on the Yellow Dog Plains to its Humboldt Mill processing center.
In January 2011, Kennecott officials said they would direct their resources away from helping the road commission develop the proposed County Road 595 because various delays would likely preclude the road from being completed in time for the projected Eagle Mine production start in late 2013.
The road commission asked Kennecott to reconsider, and roughly a month later, Kennecott officials said while the company still intended to make improvements to a transportation route from its Eagle Mine via Marquette County roads 550 and AAA, Wright Street and U.S. 41, the company would fund the preparatory work for the road commission's permit application for County Road 595.
Kennecott made no commitment to fund building of the road. Estimates for that project cost have ranged between $60 million and $80 million.
Iwanicki said a business decision needs to be made soon by Kennecott on where to direct its resources.
"We don't have any agreement on funding, but it appears through our discussions that if it gets past Oct. 1, then there's lots of jeopardy of that funding being lost," Iwanicki said.
In January, the road commission applied for a federal Clean Water Act, Section 404 permit for the County Road 595 building project. The DEQ was scheduled to make a state decision by Sunday on whether to issue the permit.
But under a new law effective June 14, applicants may authorize the DEQ to extend permit processing periods up to a year. State officials said in this case, under the new law, the road commission could extend deadlines until mid-January, which would mark a year since the road commission's application was deemed administratively complete by the DEQ.
In a letter Wednesday, Iwanicki authorized the DEQ to extend the deadline until Oct. 1, "with the understanding that MDEQ will continue to evaluate and process the permit application in a timely and efficient manner."
A previous postponement at the road commission's request had moved the state deadline forward a month from June 15. Iwanicki previously wanted more time to respond to questions presented by the DEQ on issues generally related to routes, locations and mitigation.
As of July 5, the DEQ had received all of the response materials from the road commission and now needs more time to review that information. Some of the additional information was submitted in several pieces. The DEQ since asked the road commission to compile all the modifications into one permit application document, which has since been completed and received.
"We need some time with that so we fully know what's there and how it all fits together," Steve Casey, Upper Peninsula district supervisor with the DEQ's Water Resources Division at K.I. Sawyer said Wednesday. "That's why this extension makes sense."
Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA's objection, which centered primarily around route analysis and wetlands mitigation issues, remains outstanding.
Under an agreement, the DEQ can issue permits on behalf of the federal government, unless the EPA objects after reviewing the project.
In April, an objection was sent from Tinka Hyde, director of the EPA's Water Division in Chicago, to the DEQ's Land and Water Management Division in Lansing. Previously, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote letters to the EPA critical of the project. Hyde's objection represented the combined federal comments of all three agencies.
The road commission was given 90 days, until July 22, to remedy the concerns. If it does, the objection will be removed and the state could then issue the permit on behalf of the federal government.
If the concerns are not met, the state could still issue its own permit for the project above the objection of the EPA, but the permit would have no federal authority. The road commission would then have to seek a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In a letter to Hyde Wednesday, DEQ Water Resources Chief William Creal asked the EPA to schedule a public hearing on the agency's objection. Casey said the state's request will delay the EPA's 90-day deadline indefinitely.
Creal said the "very complex and complicated project" has "importance to the economic well-being of the central Upper Peninsula." He said the EPA's objection to the project will "prevent this road from being built." To ensure the EPA has all of the facts necessary to make an informed decision on the application, the public hearing was requested.
"Given the widespread support for this project and the Marquette County Road Commission's June 29, 2012 update to their application a public hearing is warranted at this time," Creal wrote. "The hearing will allow the U.S. EPA to hear first-hand about the benefits of this project and give them additional time to review the MCRC's response to the April 23, 2012 objection letter."
Iwanicki said the road commission expected the DEQ to request the public hearing. He said the road commission expects the communication between the agency and the DEQ "will continue to be excellent as it has been throughout this entire process."
"It is also our hope that MDEQ will continue to engage the EPA and that the communication process between MDEQ and EPA, as well as MCRC and EPA, will be strengthened during this time extension," Iwanicki wrote.
The DEQ has offered to help with the logistics of arranging the meeting.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.