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State committee passes County Road 595 resolutions

MARQUETTE – State lawmakers moved two resolutions out of committee Tuesday supporting the Marquette County Road Commission’s effort to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its refusal to remove objections to issuing permits to build County Road 595.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met in joint session with the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday, hearing testimony from road commission officials who had traveled to Lansing and a presentation by state Reps. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, and John Kivela, D-Marquette, who had each introduced the resolutions supporting the lawsuit.

“Considering the level of importance to the region that these resolutions represent, it was great to have members of the Marquette County Road Commission in attendance and participate in this important meeting today,” Kivela said. “I was very pleased to see the unanimous, bipartisan support of the House Transportation Committee in voting these resolutions out of committee today.”

A vote on a similar state Senate resolution introduced recently by Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, is expected next week.

“The EPA’s ruling is arbitrary and unreasonable,” Casperson said. “I continue to applaud the road commission’s decision to appeal the EPA’s action and have the courage to stand up for the constituents we serve as construction of County Road 595 will only foster economic growth as well as increased safety for our Upper Peninsula roadways.”

On Jan. 19, the road commission board voted to sue the EPA for the federal agency’s 2013 refusal to remove a remaining wetlands mitigation-related objection to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issuing permits necessary to build the road.

The road commission’s resolution to file the lawsuit states the EPA’s “arbitrary and capricious decision” to refuse to remove its objections has adversely affected the commission’s “duty and ability to complete our mission to provide a safe and efficient system of county roads and bridges.”

The 21-mile north-south all-season road was to run between County Road AAA in Michigamme Township and U.S. 41 in Humboldt Township, providing a route for truck traffic much shorter than the 120-mile round trip from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill.

Loggers, gravel haulers and others were expected to benefit from the road including those seeking increased recreational opportunities and emergency personnel on runs to rescue accident victims or to put out wildfires.

County Road 595 would also have moved a great deal of heavy truck traffic away from the city of Marquette, Northern Michigan University and the busy U.S. 41 traffic corridor, including through Marquette Township and the cities of Negaunee and Ishpeming.

The project was expected to create more than 200 construction jobs.

“County Road 595 is about economic development. We don’t need to go on a trade mission to China or to Poland to drum up business – we can create jobs right here at home,” Dianda said. “Since the founding of Michigan, industry in the U.P. has contributed to the state’s coffers and the growth of our nation.

“Our copper helped electrify the country and Henry Ford logged here to make parts for his Model Ts. We have an abundance of resources that can contribute to problems we are having as a state paying for infrastructure. It’s time to move forward.”

Meanwhile, the environmental group Save the Wild U.P. says it has “serious objections” to the narrative being created by politicians surrounding the lawsuit.

“The Marquette County Road Commission says their road project was not properly considered by the EPA, but nothing could be further from the truth. How many times will they try to push this idea down the public’s throat?” asked Gail Griffith, a SWUP board member from Marquette.

“Multiple federal agencies reviewed this project and outlined their objections. Those objections still stand,” she said. “As concerned citizens, we outlined our objections too – nothing has changed. The 595 road remains a terrible idea for the environment, as well as taxpayers.”

In a subordinate role, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had detailed objections to the project.

Alexandra Maxwell, SWUP interim director, said residents and property owners in the area also objected to construction of the road, “who want nothing to do with mine traffic passing their isolated and serene camps.”

Jessica Koski, assistant mining technician for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, said County Road 595 would “irreversibly impact high quality wetlands at the headwaters of several watersheds and foreseeably lead to additional roads that would open up one of Michigan’s last remaining wilderness areas to resource exploitation.

“Michigan’s economy depends on tourism dollars from hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation businesses enabled by wetlands. Yet, wetlands are on the front lines of development and their preservation is vastly under-appreciated. Michigan has already lost more than half of its original 11 million acres of wetlands due to filling and draining.”

Eagle Mine officials have said the company is neutral on the lawsuit and would not contribute funding to the legal effort or the building of the project, should the road commission prevail in U.S. District Court.

The road commission’s decision to sue the EPA was dependent on no public funding being spent for the lawsuit. Needing a mechanism to handle the funding, a non-profit corporation called Stand U.P. was formed recently to solicit donations.

Last month, the Marquette County Board voted 3-2 against supporting the lawsuit – not on its merits, but because of no public disclosure of who was funding the legal challenge on behalf of the public road-building agency.

Since then, the NMU Board of Trustees, Marquette City Commission, Ishpeming City Council and Marquette County Townships Association have supported the effort. Others, including the Humboldt Township Board, have voted against the idea.

Mine trucks from the Eagle Mine make about 45 round trips to the Humboldt Mill daily. The copper and nickel mining begun last fall is expected to continue for about eight years.

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