MARQUETTE - Local and state government officials have begun new efforts to explore the possibility of resurrecting Marquette County Road 595 as a long-term resolution of several regional trucking and safety issues.
At a work session Tuesday in Marquette Township, several officials agreed the road remained the best proposed solution to divert trucks traveling from the northern part of Marquette County away from the city streets of Marquette and the busy U.S. 41 corridor.
"As far as the county and the road commission, we're strong supporters of County Road 595 and worked hard for a number of years on it," Marquette County Board Chairman Gerald Corkin said. "That was the best answer, in our opinion. It didn't happen."
Marty Fittante, aide to state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, talks to around 75 people about County Road 595 at a transportation work session Tuesday in Marquette Township. (Journal photo by John Pepin)
That earlier effort to build the $82 million road was blocked in January when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refused to remove its remaining objections to the proposed plans, preventing the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality from issuing a permit for the project with the required federal backing.
The proposed 21-mile road from County Road AAA in Michigamme Township to U.S. 41 in Humboldt Township was to provide a shorter, more direct route to move nickel and copper from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill.
In addition, proponents said the road would be used by loggers and other haulers and was to provide safety, recreational and economic development benefits and opportunities for county residents.
Over the past several months, potential new opportunities have emerged, reinvigorating advocates.
On Tuesday, the county board will consider whether to formally support a June white paper, which detailed $19.6 million in local transportation funding requests for state lawmakers.
"We had four points on that white paper that we shared with our legislators and the first and foremost is to try and get permitting for 595," said Marquette County Road Commission Engineer-Manager James Iwanicki.
Without EPA approval, federal permitting authority shifted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The white paper seeks $500,000 to complete that permitting process.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba - head of the Senate Transportation Committee - has been in conversations with state Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy, of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Casperson aide Marty Fittante told the work session that Casperson met with Pappageorge and some members of Gov. Rick Snyder's administration twice over the past three weeks.
Fittante declined to elaborate on potential long-term funding sources discussed in the meetings, but said Casperson has since approached DEQ Director Dan Wyant about the possibility of re-examining County Road 595 permitting.
Fittante said Wyant had previously believed permits for the road could have been obtained, but time ran out. One of the time-related factors involved was then-Eagle Mine owner Rio Tinto needing to decide on where to place transportation route funding to meet its anticipated 2014 production start-up.
With the EPA refusing to relent, Rio Tinto decided that instead of funding the County Road 595 project, it would pledge more than $44 million to the road commission to upgrade existing county roads.
"He (Wyant) essentially said, 'If I had more time, I think we could have gotten there,'" Fittante said. "So Tom reached out to him last week to say, 'If you had more time, and if we found a funding source, could we get there?'"
Fittante said Wyant didn't commit to that.
"But he did tell Tom he would go back and take a look at it because we know that, from our perspective, the EPA's objections just don't have a basis and don't have merit," Fittante said. "Our intention is to continue the 595 conversation until Director Wyant says 'No' or we're at a loss with funding; from where Tom sits, that's still the best solution."
If the permit was approved, the county would have seven years to find funding to build the project.
The EPA's remaining objection was that impacts to aquatic resources were significant and proposed mitigation would not sufficiently compensate. In late August 2012, a new proposal was announced for mitigation which would have preserved 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 instead planned to fill 24.3 acres of wetlands, replace 19 steam crossings and build seven others.
"In the end, the last conversation we had with Region 5 of the EPA, they essentially said the DNR isn't an appropriate steward for all these areas of wetlands that Kennecott (Rio Tinto) wants to put aside because they offer timber management as part of what they do," Fittante said. "You're just beside yourself to hear that kind of thinking."
Lawmakers are also looking for legal recourse.
Fittante said discussions have taken place with lawyers in Lansing. One strategy was developed by a Western states attorney.
"It is essentially using federal law that the locals haven't been taking advantage of to push back against the environmental standards and regulations when they're unilaterally imposing that upon you and dictating a result to you," Fittante said.
Other legal explorations have included provisions of the 10th Amendment, which says that powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved for the states.
Work session attendees were looking long-range into the future for solutions, anticipating more mining projects beyond the Eagle Mine.
Marquette City Commissioner Sara Cambensy said there are currently 33 mine sites being explored in northern Marquette and Baraga counties.
"I agree the 595 issue should be put back on the table," Cambensy said.
County Commissioner Deborah Pellow said a new committee on long-term transportation solutions needs more support than a similar panel previously set up for County Road 595 had.
"Players weren't there that should have been there," Pellow said. "So, if you're going to do this, I think it's a great idea and I think it's what needs to be done. But take a lesson from the one (panel) that we had put together and everybody be there and everybody get involved."
Fittante said he thinks all of the U.P. representatives to the state Legislature are supporting the local efforts for a regional transportation solution.
"You have a group in Lansing, bipartisan, bicameral that's very committed to this project and finding a solution and helping," Fittante said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org