We're adding our voice to the clarion call from Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality - urging the United States Environmental Protection Agency to let go of its lingering objections to the proposed Marquette County Road 595.
In a letter Monday, DEQ Director Dan Wyant urged the EPA to remove its official objection to water quality permits, which would let the long-debated project move ahead.
We feel the in-depth examination of the plan over the past eight months, along with new compensatory efforts to preserve wetlands, should remove any remaining doubts about the road project and route.
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.
Proponents have said it would bring a myriad of uses and benefits, including creating a more direct route for Rio Tinto to truck ore from its Eagle Mine on the Yellow Dog Plains to its Humboldt Mill and giving better access to logging sites and recreational land.
Opponents, including the EPA, argue the proposal doesn't consider alternate routes which would have less impact on wetlands. The road would affect 25.81 acres of wetlands and require building 22 stream crossings.
In April, the EPA filed a formal objection to the permit. Then, in August, the road commission laid out a new wetlands mitigation plan for the road, which would preserve 1,576 acres - including 647 acres of wetlands - off the southeastern edge of the McCormick Wilderness.
This plan would extend the federal lands adjacent to the McCormick Wilderness and provide 26.6 acres of wetlands as mitigation for every 1 acre filled in by building County Road 595.
We think the economic benefits and environmental offsets created by this project represent a win for all parties involved.
The road commission has also clarified and expanded its route analysis, demonstrating the proposed route is the most practical and least environmentally damaging alternative.
This new and improved road commission plan has state officials confident they'll soon be in a position to issue a permit.
But, now it's up to the EPA. If the federal agency continues to object, it may well scuttle the whole project. The MDEQ would have 30 days to issue a permit that addresses the objections or to deny the permit. After that, authority to issue the required Clean Water Act permit would fall to the Army Corps of Engineers and the application process would restart.
The DEQ wants the EPA to make its decision by Oct. 1, because time is running out. Beyond that date, the possibility of funding for building the road from Rio Tinto would likely be lost.
The mining outfit hasn't formally committed to pay for building the road, but has said it would provide the money if permits were granted and the work was begun by May 2013.
If the EPA withdraws its objection, the MDEQ could issue the permit and work on the road could start.
It's getting down to the wire and we hope the EPA clears away the last roadblocks for this important project.