MARQUETTE - Roughly 100 people testified Tuesday at a packed public hearing at Northern Michigan University on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's wetlands and alternatives objections to Marquette County Road 595.
Over the course of more than three hours, many of the concerns previously expressed at other public meetings by opponents and proponents of the proposed north-south roadway in western Marquette County were reiterated.
Numerous community leaders, including township, city, county, state and federal lawmakers, offered support for the road project, citing job creation, reduction of public safety concerns, routing truck traffic out of populated areas, less pollution, shorter trucking distances, improved access and economic benefits.
Tinka Hyde, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Division in Chicago, addresses proponents and opponents of Marquette County Road 595 who packed a public hearing at Northern Michigan University Tuesday. (Journal photo by John Pepin)
Gene Champagne of Big Bay greeted regulators during his testimony Tuesday saying, “Welcome to Kennecott County,” mocking the influence he said Rio Tinto has had on community leaders. (Journal photo by John Pepin)
"The area where the road is proposed has a long history of uses, including logging, excavating and motorized recreation," said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, in a statement read by an aide. "Most of the corridor where County Road 595 is proposed is already traversed by vehicles."
Levin said there may be no practicable alternative to the road project, other than a previously state-approved route through the city of Marquette "because funding for an alternative is not available." Rio Tinto has agreed to fund the 595 road project if construction starts by next spring.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, and Gov. Rick Snyder supported the road project in statements as did state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and state Rep. Matt Huuki, R-Atlantic Mine, who spoke at the hearing.
"There has been enormous support for this project," Casperson said. "We want to see this move forward."
Heads of the state departments of Agriculture and Rural Development, Natural Resources and Transportation were also in favor of the proposed project. Casperson said letters of support had previously been sent to the EPA from a supermajority of members of the state Senate and House.
"Michigamme Township has supported mining and logging since 1872," said Michigamme Township Supervisor Alvar Maki. "This proposed road will serve both of these industries very well."
Humboldt Township Supervisor Joseph Derocha wanted the south end of County Road 595 moved off Wolf Lake Road away from residences and Powell Township Supervisor Daryl Wilcox wanted the north end of the road to continue past County Road AAA to Big Bay.
Trades workers, timber producers, the Lake Superior Community Partnership and the Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development also backed the road.
Opponents were also many in number at the hearing who raised questions about the road commission taking on more miles of road when it is financially struggling to maintain what it has now, long-term destruction of natural resources for relatively short-term gains and questionable practices abroad by Rio Tinto, which would use the road to truck ore from its Eagle Mine in Michigamme Township south to an ore processing center in Humboldt Township.
Gene Champagne of Big Bay mocked the backing of the county officials for the road project. He said viable alternative routes were not considered because the road's stated purpose was intended to serve the needs of Rio Tinto (Kennecott).
"Kennecott went to the Kennecott County Board who went to the Kennecott County Road Commission and here we have Kennecott County Road 595," Champagne said. "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."
Other opponents were skeptical increased truck traffic into populated areas using county roads 510 and 550 would be a significant issue, said the stated purpose for the project masked a Rio Tinto haul road and called the original permits issued to the mining company into question. Several speakers suggested a bypass around the city of Marquette be considered.
Lillian Heldreth of Marquette said, "The issue here is whether or not we shall sacrifice the integrity and balance of one of Michigan's Upper Peninsula's few remaining open and undeveloped wetlands areas to provide a certain degree of convenience for some of the Marquette County citizens and to save a great deal of money for a very large, very wealthy, foreign corporation."
Some opponents suggested Rio Tinto's original transportation plan was best, which was to truck ore down County Road 550 to a railhead north of Marquette, where it could be moved to Canada. Proponents cited a petition signed a few years ago by roughly 1,000 people opposing mine trucks traveling along County Road 550 and 510.
Michelle Halley, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, said rail transport has been largely absent from any discussions on the project.
"Ore and timber can be hauled by rail, construction of a railway would create significant jobs; rail is infinitely safer than motor vehicle traffic," Halley said. "Rail transportation is far more fuel efficient and air emissions efficient than motor vehicle traffic probably will ever be. Rail transportation would conserve wetlands and minimize impacts to critical habitat and corridors."
The EPA will continue to accept written public comment through Sept. 4. To learn more, visit: epa.gov/region5/water/cr595/
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.