MARQUETTE - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials from Chicago outlined their decision making process and explained the basis for their objections Tuesday to plans to build Marquette County Road 595.
In April, the federal agency filed a formal objection to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issuing a permit to the Marquette County Road Commission for the north-south road project.
"EPA and DEQ do not permit the road per se, what the DEQ would be permitting would be the placement of fill in surface waters that would be required to carry out construction of the road," said the EPA's Peter Swenson.
A permit is required for that action under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
"No discharge of fill material may be permitted if, two conditions: there is a practicable alternative that would be less damaging to the aquatic environment or waters of the U.S. would be significantly degraded," Swenson said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers generally issues such permits. But Michigan and New Jersey are exceptions, where the Section 404 permits are issued by the state (DEQ), if there is no federal objection.
Swenson said the responsibility of permit applicants is to avoid and minimize impacts to wetlands and other waters, and to the extent that impacts cannot be avoided, they need to take steps to mitigate for any unavoidable impacts.
Aided by the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the EPA maintains an oversight role in Clean Water Act permitting; reviewing and commenting on applications the DEQ is considering.
"Where we find an application is not consistent with the Clean Water Act 404 requirements, we issue a federal objection," Swenson said.
The road commission originally proposed filling 25.8 acres of wetlands and constructing 22 stream crossings in the building County Road 595. Figures Swenson provided Tuesday said the county now plans to fill 24.3 acres of wetlands, replace 19 steam crossings and build seven others. The length of the road would be 20.9 miles and cost an estimated $82 million to build.
The basis for the EPA's objection is the presence of feasible alternative routes with fewer aquatic impacts; impacts to aquatic resources with the project are significant and the proposed mitigation would not sufficiently compensate for impacts.
Swenson said forested wetlands comprise 75 percent of the wetlands to be filled for County Road 595, which are difficult to replace and can take more than 50 years to develop; including "rare and imperiled" wetland types vulnerable to being extirpated in Michigan.
The EPA said two alternative routes impact fewer forested wetlands.
A "Mulligan Plains East-Sleepy Hollow" alternative has 60 percent forested wetlands impacted, with those remaining mostly scrub-shrub wetlands and fewer rare or endangered ecological types. This route would have 35 percent less impact than County Road 595.
A total of 15.7 acres of wetlands would be impacted building this alternative; with 11 replacement and six new stream crossings built. The road would be 25.9 miles and cost $126 million.
Another alternative the EPA thought deserved more consideration was called the "Red Road-Sleepy Hollow" route. Less than 50 percent of the wetlands here would be the forested variety, with fewer rare or endangered ecological types and many wetlands already split by existing roads. This alternative would have 25 percent less impact than County Road 595.
The length of this road would be 39.9 miles, impact 18.3 acres of wetlands; have 26 replacement and six new stream crossings and cost $107 million to build.
EPA officials were concerned that mitigation proposed by the road commission stressed forested wetland creation and questioned the likelihood of success. The agency also thought additional mitigation was necessary, as was also the case in proposed stream restoration and culvert replacement.
However, the road commission recently proposed new mitigation by preserving 1,576 acres, including 647 wetland acres, near the McCormick Wilderness. The EPA and DEQ are now reviewing that proposal.
Comments received from the public will be reviewed. A comment period ends Sept. 4.
If the EPA maintains its objection, the DEQ has 30 days to issue a permit addressing the objections, or deny the permit. After that, authority to issue a Clean Water Act permit would fall to the Corps of Engineers. The application process would restart.
If the EPA withdraws its objection, the DEQ could issue the permit and work on the project could begin. Deadlines for a DEQ permit decision were extended until Oct. 1. DEQ officials have asked the EPA to make its findings by that date.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.