MARQUETTE - Marquette City Commissioners were left trying to determine the best course of action Wednesday, after reviewing a letter from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality summarily dismissing trucking-related municipal concerns raised last week.
In the letter dated Wednesday, Hal Fitch, the chief of the DEQ's office of oil, gas and minerals, acknowledged city concerns about the potential impact of increased truck traffic - stemming from the operation of the Eagle Mine on the Yellow Dog Plains - on city infrastructure and public safety.
However, Fitch said the DEQ disagreed with the assertions - made in last week's letter sent to the department on behalf of Marquette by attorney Brian Sheridan - that the permit for the Eagle Mine needs to be amended and that current mine owner Rio Tinto should be forced to take steps to mitigate environmental impacts to the city.
Marquette Mayor Pro-tem Robert Niemi said he is disappointed in the denial and is unsure what the next step is for the city.
"I guess we'd have to talk to our attorney," he said. "I suppose the DEQ has one opinion and our attorney obviously has a different opinion. I'm not sure what the next step would be.
"Perhaps the best solution would be for the city and (the company) to sit down and address the issues. Because regardless of what the DNR says or the permit process says, the impact is certainly there."
Once the mine begins production in late 2014, ore will be hauled through Marquette. Daily, 50 trucks will drive into the city along Marquette County Road 550. From there, trucks will travel down Sugarloaf Avenue and onto Wright Street, before heading into Marquette Township and U.S. 41 on the way to the Humboldt Mill.
In the original letter to the DEQ, the city's attorney notes concerns over the prospect of mining trucks traveling across the campus of Northern Michigan University, past hundreds of stormwater drains, through residential and recreation areas and along school bus routes.
The document states that the additional truck traffic, according to engineering estimates, will require about $4.5 million worth of city road work.
Sheridan argued that if Marquette was a part of the haul route, Rio Tinto's environmental impact assessment should have included impacts on the northern portion of the city, and asked the DEQ to "find that (Rio Tinto) is violating the mining permit due to the fact that the impact on infrastructure within the city limits of Marquette is not zero, as (Rio Tinto) has stated."
Fitch said the department takes a different view of what falls into a mine's "affected area."
"The Environmental Impact Assessments, Mining Plans, and Contingency Plans for the mine and mill are accurate, complete, and current," Fitch wrote. "The city of Marquette is not within the 'affected area' for the mine or the mill as that term is defined ..."
He continued: "The mining areas for the mine and mill are the areas within the perimeter of the respective operations; the city streets of Marquette are not affected by those operations per se."
City Commissioner Don Ryan said the trucking will have an impact and that it is incumbent on officials to find the best solution.
" I think this makes it clear that unless we come up with a different plan, the DEQ is not going to do it," he said. "I think this means we have to get back to working with our neighbors and some others in the county and see if we can't come up with a better solution than simply having the trucks come through Marquette."
Representatives from the city, Marquette County, Marquette Township and the Marquette County Road Commission have been meeting recently to discuss countywide transportation options.
Ryan, who was the only commissioner to vote against transmitting last week's letter to the DEQ, said he was concerned the city's decision caught other municipalities off guard.
"I know we've offended some of our neighbors, who felt they were blindsided by the city's actions, and these were the people we've been working with to come up with a different solution," Ryan said. "I think it's unfortunate, but hopefully we can get it back on track."
Fellow Commissioner Sara Cambensy voted in favor of transmitting the original letter, but said she assumed the other municipalities had voiced support for the plan.
"Given the recent meetings of local jurisdictions and state legislators working together on common traffic safety, funding and long-term transportation goals for our area, the city commission should not have proceeded with the letter without dialogue and the support of the county and township," she said Wednesday via email. "Clearly, I did not have all of the information when I voted. Truck safety and transportation is a regional issue and I am not interested in the city acting individually on the matter."
Officials for Rio Tinto - which is currently working through the specifics of a deal to sell its control of the Eagle Mine to Canadian-based Lundin Mining - said the company would be open to larger transportation discussions with municipalities.
"Truck traffic is a historical issue that requires long term planning," company spokesman Dan Blondeau said in an email. "Long term truck transportation solutions require participation from all commercial road users and we are happy to be part of those discussions."
Ryan said he hoped that sentiment will carry over to Lundin, as well.
"They say they want to carry on and have good community relations, and this is obviously a key issue," he said. "Hopefully they would be part of the solution, too."
City Commissioner Fred Stonehouse said he was also disappointed the DEQ didn't more seriously consider the city's request.
"I think the bigger point to come of this is simply the fact that the city has really tried every opportunity possible to arrive at an amenable solution," Stonehouse said.
He said that to not ask the DEQ to review the permit in light of the city's concerns would have been unacceptable.
"I think from this side, it's all we can do," he said. "And that's it. Now we need to look at other alternatives."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.