MARQUETTE - More reaction has followed the recent decision of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality not to issue a wetlands fill permit for Marquette County Road 595.
The $82 million project would have built a 21-mile north-south road from County Road AAA to U.S. 41, providing a more direct route for Rio Tinto to haul nickel and copper from its Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill. In addition, the road was to provide safety, recreational and economic development benefits and opportunities for county residents.
Marquette County Road Commission Engineer-Manager Jim Iwanicki said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's refusal to remove objections to the project prevented the DEQ from issuing a permit which had the required federal backing.
On Dec. 4, the EPA removed its objection to the road agency's alternative route analysis, but left objections in place over wetlands mitigation issues and other items, which needed to be satisfied within 30 days. Iwanicki and the DEQ said there was not enough time remaining to resolve the outstanding issues, given the EPA's requirements.
The Marquette County Board voted unanimously Tuesday to send a letter of thanks to Iwanicki for his efforts contributed to the permit application process.
"He did a tremendous amount of work on this over the last year and a half," said board Chairman Gerald Corkin.
Commissioner Deborah Pellow said Iwanicki "worked very diligently on this and I think he deserves a big thank you. He worked long and hard to try to make this come to fruition and it didn't happen."
Pellow said ultimately, there was some problems with some agencies that didn't want the project to move forward.
"It's unfortunate for the western end of Marquette County," Pellow said. "It's an $80 million project lost. It's approximately 400 jobs for a couple years lost to the western end of Marquette County and the western end of Marquette County could have used this. But it's not going to happen."
State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said regulatory agencies seemed to have an intentional agenda against the mining-related project, which he said was "uncalled for."
"I'm disappointed," Casperson said. "I think it's something that's hard to even put into words."
Casperson said it wasn't like the road commission was trying to "slip something through," or rushed to get something approved.
"It wasn't as much about the road as it was about the agenda," Casperson said.
U.S. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, is in Afghanistan this week and was unavailable for comment on the County Road 595 issue. Levin has followed the development of the project and, like U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, supported the road being built.
"Senator Stabenow remains committed to working with the community on this and other efforts to help create local jobs and spur economic growth," said Stabenow spokesperson Matt Williams.
Rio Tinto had agreed to fund the County Road 595 project, provided the permits required could be obtained and construction started by May 2013. Without the road commission's permit being issued, Rio Tinto has shifted its focus and money to helping the road commission upgrade existing roads, which Rio Tinto will use to truck ore to the mill.
The DEQ previously approved Rio Tinto trucking ore from the Eagle Mine along County Road AAA to County Road 510 and then County Road 550 to Marquette and then along Sugarloaf Avenue to Wright Street to County Road HQ to U.S. 41 to M-95 to County Road 601 to the mill.
The cost to improve the existing roads is roughly $45 million, with work expected to start this summer in anticipation of the mine's first production in 2014. Rio Tinto will fund the majority of the cost, continuing to provide road construction jobs in the county, but shifting them to its eastern portion.
Marquette County Commissioner Steve Pence said it was "understandable that local officials were upset because the safest and most economical route to transfer minerals from the Yellow Dog Plains to the Humboldt Mill will not be constructed due to unresolved environmental issues."
"But it is wrong to blame the EPA for rejecting a hastily concocted plan that reflected a multinational corporation's sense of entitlement, which trumped concerns as important as those embodied in the Clean Water Act," Pence said. " In an area where any job is a highly sought prize, it is easy to politicize and condemn those who dare say there are important and competing concerns which mitigate against a 'quick fix' which is no fix at all."
Pence said it is "regrettable when government officials presume the worst about those who are sworn to uphold regulations and laws which reflect the national will. It ends with the public distrusting all who (serve) in government."
Pence said the road commission pursued County Road 595 "hastily" and "with inadequate foresight," "without due regard to many critical issues, including how the road would be maintained in the event no one agreed to long-term maintenance and snow removal."
"As local officials who do not want our every action judged as political, unwise or incompetent, we should avoid castigation of the EPA as both shortsighted and wrong," Pence said. "Absent clear and convincing proof that the EPA had an agenda that was anti-jobs - rather than being legitimately concerned with our most precious resource, water - we should be restrained in our criticism and consider our own eagerness to please anyone who promises jobs, of marginal pay and limited duration."
Margaret Comfort, president of Save the Wild U.P., said the environmental group is relieved the DEQ decided not to grant the permit, but is "well aware the fight isn't over yet."
"This has been a David and Goliath struggle. Activists throughout the Midwest are watching this issue," Comfort said. "Would the EPA and the DEQ accommodate one of the world's largest mining companies and allow them to build a haul road through fragile wetlands? This is a victory for working people and all citizens across the U.P. Big business lost this round."
Kathleen Heideman, a Save the Wild U.P. board member, agreed.
"This boondoggle was a corporate driveway dressed up as a public service. Rio Tinto has a lot of nerve to set up the county road commission to build their private infrastructure," Heideman said. "Taxpayer money should never have been spent lobbying for Rio Tinto's haul road, period."
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.