Menominee continue fight against Back Forty Mine

Tribe holding gathering today in Michigan
By: 

Wisconsin Public Radio

The state of Michigan recently issued a draft mine permit for a gold and zinc mine bordering Wisconsin known as the Back Forty mine. As the project nears regulatory approval, some Menominee tribal members in Wisconsin are calling on tribal leaders in Michigan and Wisconsin to stand with them in opposition to the project.

Aquila Resources Inc. has proposed investing $261 million to build open-pit and underground mines for the gold- and zinc-rich deposit near the Menominee River. The mine is expected to have a 16-year life and create more than 250 jobs.

Guy Reiter, a Menominee tribal member and community organizer, fears the mine will threaten the Menominee River, which is central to the tribe’s creation story.

“It’s no different than if an open-pit sulfide mine was put in Bethlehem for the Christians,” Reiter said.

The tribe has organized a gathering and river walk in opposition to the mine Thursday ahead of a public hearing for the project next month. Tribal members were scheduled to meet in the south parking lot of the Menominee Casino Resort in Keshena at 8 a.m. and depart for Stephenson, Michigan, at 8:30 a.m.

The gathering will begin with a water ceremony at 10:30 a.m. Following the water ceremony, speakers will comment on the impacts to the tribe’s cultural resources, environment, water, and wildlife. The buses will leave Stephenson at 2 p.m. and return to the Menominee Casino Resort about 4 p.m.

In a statement, Aquila’s vice president of the United States operations, Cliff Nelson, said the company respects the tribe’s right to gather peacefully:

“Aquila Resources is firmly committed to adhering to high environmental standards and a sensitive approach to cultural history in developing the Back Forty project,” he said. “As we continue to move forward on the required permitting process, we welcome ongoing dialogue of the Menominee Indian Nation and others.”

Nelson also stressed the economic benefits to the region if the mine is built, including more than $11 million annually in revenue for state and local governments.

Reiter contends the project would affect 22 known cultural sites identified by the tribe. He also noted the mine’s proximity to the Menominee River presents concerns over the risks for acid mine drainage or arsenic to leech into the nearby waterway.

Wisconsin regulators have weighed in on the project, but Michigan will have the final say.

Joe Maki, a geologist and mining specialist with the Upper Peninsula District of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said they issued a draft mine permit earlier this month with a list of conditions.

“One of the conditions was to put another synthetic, manmade liner under their waste/tailing rock facility,” Maki said. “We also are requiring some additional monitoring.”

Maki said the additional liner will help divert water into basins so it can ultimately be treated in a water treatment plant before being discharged into the Menominee River.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Ann Coakley said the DNR consulted with Michigan on the project.

“All along Michigan said, ‘We’ll definitely use your water quality standards as well as ours when issuing permits.’ Indeed they did,” Coakley said. “The surface water discharge application meets the Wisconsin water quality standards.”

Coakley said the department will not be providing comments at Michigan’s public hearing on the project next month.

“I think if we had some concerns, Michigan would take them into account, but we don’t,” she said. “Michigan has the sole permitting authority, and we recognize that.”

The public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Oct. 6 at Stephenson High School on three draft permits for the mine, including air, mining, and national pollutant discharge and elimination system permits. Aquila’s application for a wetlands permit remains under review.

Construction on the mine won’t begin until all permits have been issued for the project.