ISHPEMING - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has lifted its objection to the Marquette County Road Commission's alternative route analysis for the proposed County Road 595 project, but the agency reaffirmed its objection to plans for minimizing and compensating for the road's impacts to wetlands, streams and wildlife.
The proposed new 21-mile, $82 million 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.
EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman in Chicago outlined the agency's remaining concerns, along with prescriptions for remedying them, to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant in a letter Tuesday.
"EPA has decided to withdraw the agency's objection regarding the permit applicant's alternatives assessment for the County Road 595 project," Hedman wrote. "However, construction of County Road 595 would have significant direct and indirect impacts on high quality wetland and stream resources, as well as on wildlife."
Hedman said Clean Water Act guidelines require impacts be minimized to the extent practicable and require compensation for any unavoidable impacts.
"To date, EPA has not received adequate plans to minimize impacts or a comprehensive mitigation plan that would sufficiently compensate for unavoidable impacts," Hedman wrote. "Accordingly, EPA reaffirms the agency's objection regarding minimization of impacts and compensatory mitigation."
Hedman said the DEQ has 30 days from the date of receipt of the letter to satisfy the EPA's reaffirmed objection by issuing a permit that includes minimization and mitigation plans consistent with requirements outlined by the EPA, or notify the agency the DEQ intends to deny the road commission's permit application.
Absent such action by the DEQ, the authority to process the application transfers to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The application process would then restart.
Jim Iwanicki, Marquette County Road Commission engineer-manager, said the agency is hoping to meet with the DEQ and EPA to get the outstanding issues resolved.
"We're going to try to work with the DEQ to address all their (EPA) concerns and still try to get a permit issued within the next 30 days," Iwanicki said. "We think we've got a shot to still try to make it happen. Our biggest concern is the 30-day window and the holidays included in that 30 days, whether people will be available."
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 was the presence of feasible alternative routes with fewer aquatic impacts. The EPA also maintained the project's impacts to aquatic resources are significant and said proposed mitigation would not sufficiently compensate for them.
Since the objection, road commission officials have worked to try to modify the proposal to satisfy the EPA's concerns. In late August, a new proposal was announced for mitigation which 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 of County Road 595. The county now plans to fill 24.3 acres of wetlands, replace 19 steam crossings and build seven others.
Iwanicki was pleased the EPA lifted its objection on the route analysis.
"They have agreed the location we put the road in makes the most sense," Iwanicki said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.