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January 5, 2021

Wetlands Permit Denied for Back Forty Mine

Victory: Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin challenged permit approval to protect Menominee River

Contacts

Melissa Cook, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, mcook@mitw.org

Janette Brimmer, Earthjustice, jbrimmer@earthjustice.org

Stefanie Tsosie, Earthjustice, stsosie@earthjustice.org

Bala Sivaraman, Earthjustice, bsivaraman@earthjustice.org

Lansing, MI

A Michigan Administrative Law Judge has denied a wetlands permit for the Back Forty mine, ruling in favor of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and noting that “the project is not in the public interest” and will have negative effects on surrounding cultural and historic resources. The permit would have allowed mining company Aquila Resources to fill, excavate, and drain Menominee River wetlands in the process of constructing an open-pit mine and ore-processing facility, significantly lowering the area groundwater table, irretrievably devastating area wetland ecosystems, and contaminating the river with acid-mine pollution.

The denial is largely based on the lack of information on the project’s environmental impacts. The Judge found that Aquila Resources failed to include information on how the mine would affect area wetlands and water resources. The decision also reflects that the mine will have a negative effect on the numerous cultural resources surrounding the proposed project site.

Members of the Menominee Tribe regard the Menominee River as a sacred waterway, and their place of origin. Aside from causing pollution that would harm aquatic life, and endanger public health, the copper and zinc mine would destroy ancient Menominee sacred sites including dance rings and burial mounds lining the river’s banks.

“Menominee Tribe is pleased with the decision of the administrative law judge, as it recognizes that significant questions about the Back Forty Mine Project permitting process still remain,” said Joan Delabreau, chairwoman, of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. “The Judge’s decision confirms the Menominee Tribe’s concerns about the threats of the Back Forty Mine project to the water, human health, downstream communities, the environment, and our Menominee cultural sites. This is a win for the Menominee River, the people of Wisconsin and Michigan, and Menominee Tribe, and we will not stop fighting until these waters, lands, and sacred sites are protected for good.”

“This wetlands permit was initially approved despite repeated concerns flagged by Michigan environmental staff that Aquila Resources refused to provide all of the information the state needed to determine the full environmental impacts the mine will have on the Menominee River and the surrounding area,” said Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer, who represents the Tribe. “We are pleased that the Judge has denied the permit, and we’ll continue using every available legal tool to protect the Menominee River on behalf of the Menominee Tribe.”

Background

The Back Forty mine poses an existential threat to the Menominee Tribe’s cultural landscape along the banks of its namesake river, located at the border between Michigan and Wisconsin. Canadian mining company Aquila Resources seeks to dig an 80-acre open pit immediately adjacent to the river, in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula, to extract copper, zinc, gold, and silver. The waters of the Menominee River have long been a draw for boating and sport fishing — yet the river faces a grave threat from the Back Forty project. Destruction and degradation of area wetlands will adversely affect groundwater throughout the area for years to come, which in turn degrade wetlands and area streams. Destruction and degradation of wetlands will also degrade area ecosystems and erode wetlands benefits, like serving as a buffer in flooding or groundwater recharge. This activity will ultimately transform a thriving forested area to an industrial wasteland, with mine waste tailings reaching 10 stories high. Finally, for decades to come, acid mine pollution will remain a significant threat to the Menominee River. Acid mine drainage is caused when sulfide ores — the rocks that bear minerals such as gold, nickel, zinc, and copper — react to form acids after exposure to air and water in the industrial mining process. The nasty contaminated runoff can leach from mine sites, depositing heavy metals into the environment that are toxic to fish, vegetation, and water quality. Earthjustice is representing the Menominee Tribe in multiple proceedings in its efforts to protect the River and the important historical and cultural resources at the mine site. In addition to this case concerning the wetland permit, the Tribe is also challenging the mining permit in state proceedings.

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