TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Michigan regulators have issued the final required permit for a proposed open-pit mine in the Upper Peninsula near the Wisconsin line, while ordering the company to take additional steps to protect groundwater and the nearby Menominee River.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said it had granted a wetlands permit to Toronto-based Aquila Resources, which is targeting primarily gold and zinc in an underground sulfide deposit discovered in 2001. The company also expects its Back Forty mine to produce smaller volumes of copper, silver and lead.
The agency's decision was "a major milestone" for the project, company spokesman Dan Blondeau said Tuesday, although the Menominee Indian Tribe and others who oppose it on ecological and cultural grounds pledged to continue the fight.
"People who love our land and water — including our indigenous brothers and sisters — and those who have raised their children here and want to see their grandchildren grow up in this area, are the same people who will stand firm in total opposition to the proposed Aquila mine," said Dale Burie, president of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River.
The state environmental department earlier approved permits dealing with mine construction and operation, air quality, and wastewater treatment and discharge.
The proposed wetlands permit hit a snag in March when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Aquila's application lacked crucial information about how the mine would affect sensitive waters. The EPA also questioned the adequacy of sites selected for preservation to offset wetlands damage.
In a letter to the state agency last month, the EPA's regional office in Chicago said talks with the company had resolved some of its objections and that others could be worked out by making additional requirements in the permit.
The Michigan department said Aquila will have to develop an improved plan for monitoring groundwater and wetlands that allows for additional protections if harm is detected during the seven to eight years the mine is expected to operate.
The company also must take steps to prevent pollution from chemicals used during the mining process and from storage and disposal of waste rock. Additionally, Aquila was ordered to devise a plan for eventual closure of the mine that ensures waste rock will be returned to the pit in an environmentally safe way.
"We've worked very closely with EPA and other stakeholders in reviewing the project," DEQ spokesman Scott Dean said. "We'll be in close contact with them as it moves forward."
No date has been set for construction to begin, Blondeau said.
"We still have a lot of hurdles left before we can start," he said. "We'll be working on those things over the next few months."
The Menominee tribe filed a lawsuit in January aimed at blocking the project. It contends the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers erred by letting the state of Michigan handle permitting under the federal Clean Water Act.
The tribe says the proposed mine site is within a cultural landscape that includes tribal burial grounds and ancient farming and ceremonial sites.