HUMBOLDT - Rio Tinto officials said Friday a deadline extension until December on whether the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will issue permits necessary for building Marquette County Road 595 will not affect the company's pledge to fund the $82 million roadway - if construction begins by spring.
"We're going to adhere to the current plan," said Dan Blondeau, Rio Tinto advisor for communications and media relations in Humboldt. "We remain committed to funding County Road 595 if the road can be permitted and construction can begin by spring 2013."
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 Rio Tinto (Kennecott) to truck ore from its Eagle Mine on the Yellow Dog Plains to its Humboldt Mill processing center in Humboldt Township.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials record public comments during a hearing in August at Northern Michigan University on a Marquette County Road Commission permit application for the proposed County Road 595. A Monday deadline for a DEQ permitting decision has been postponed until Dec. 1, with EPA officials needing more time to review comments from the meeting and an associated public comment period, which closed Sept. 4. (Journal photo by John Pepin)
Marquette County Road Commission Engineer-Manager Jim Iwanicki authorized the DEQ in a letter Thursday to extend the permit decision deadline until Dec. 1. A permit decision was scheduled to be rendered by Monday.
Iwanicki said Thursday's deadline extension was provided after consultation with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, who said they needed additional time to review and consider more than 400 comments received during an Aug. 28 public hearing in Marquette and a public comment period that ended Sept. 4.
"The DEQ really needs the answer from the EPA so they can do their final bit of work," Iwanicki said.
In January, the road commission applied for a wetlands fill permit for the road-building project from the DEQ under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and Sections 301 and 303 of the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.
Under an agreement, the DEQ can issue permits on behalf of the federal government, unless the EPA objects. In April, the EPA filed an objection, after consulting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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 proposed mitigation would not sufficiently compensate for impacts.
Since the objection, road commission officials have worked to try to rework the proposal to satisfy the EPA's concerns. In late August, a new proposal was announced for mitigation that would preserve 1,576 acres, including 647 wetland acres, near the McCormick Wilderness.
In addition, the road commission originally proposed filling 25.8 acres of wetlands and constructing 22 stream crossings in the building County Road 595. The county now plans to fill 24.3 acres of wetlands, replace 19 steam crossings and build seven others.
Last week, after a review of the changes, the DEQ urged the EPA to remove its objection to the project.
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.
The DEQ was initially scheduled to make a permit decision in July, but under a new law that took effect June 14, applicants can authorize the DEQ to extend permit processing periods up to a year. In this case, that would be mid-January for the road commission.
In July, Iwanicki extended the deadline until Oct. 1 to provide more time for application review.
But in authorizing that extension, Iwanicki said discussions with Rio Tinto indicated that beyond Oct. 1, the possibility of funding for building the road from the mining company would likely be lost. Rio Tinto needs to finalize its transportation plans in line with its Eagle Mine production scheduled to begin in 2014. The road is expected to take roughly two years to build. Rio Tinto would use existing roads until County Road 595 was finished.
Blondeau said Friday the Oct. 1 deadline for a permit decision "was not a drop-dead date."
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is email@example.com.