Lawsuit keeps U.P. mine controversy alive

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fresh from a U.S. Supreme Court defeat at the hands of Michigan over air pollution rules, again finds itself in the legal cross-hairs — this time, one of the state’s local governments.

Marquette County’s Road Commission has filed a lawsuit against the federal agency for stopping plans for a new road through four Upper Peninsula townships. The road project has stalled indefinitely after the EPA declined to approve them over environmental concerns.

It’s an issue local officials find frustrating. Some see it as the latest example in the area’s long history of being told what to do by outsiders.

“They never gave us definitive answers on why it wasn’t permitable, and that’s part of our lawsuit,” said Jim Iwanicki, engineer manager for the Marquette road commission. “It has seemed like they are constantly moving the goal line. They’d say ‘Do that,’ and then when we’d thought we accomplished it, they’d say ‘No, this is what we really meant.’ ”

Others in the Upper Peninsula have welcomed the EPA’s stance, saying the road would lead to unnecessary development in an area that trades on its outdoor attractions and rural lifestyle.

“This is a vital watershed for not only the (Yellow Dog) river, but two Great Lakes,” said Alexandra Maxwell, interim director at Save the Wild U.P. “These are rivers that run out to Lake Superior and all the way down to Lake Michigan. So for the state of the water quality in perpetuity, (the road) is a huge concern.”

After several years of wrangling with state and federal regulators, the Marquette County Road Commission filed its lawsuit July 8 in U.S. District Court’s western district.

At the heart of the matter is County Road 595 — a proposed 21-mile road that would run north and south through Champion, Ely, Humboldt and Michigamme townships. At one end lies the Eagle Mine, where Lundin Mining pulls nickel and copper from the ground. At the other end lies the company’s processing plant.

With no direct north/south link between the two sites, Lundin’s large trucks are forced to go east and pick up County Road 510 or 550 before heading south. Next they hop on Highway 41 to head back west.

After offering to pay for the construction of the aborted County Road 595 — with a price tag of up to $80 million — Lundin has spent more than $40 million in the last few years to upgrade the local roads it now uses between its mine and processing center.

To some, the situation creates unwanted safety and air pollution hazards. It also puts far more weight on the local roadways than they were designed to handle.

It sends an estimated 100 or so semi-trucks through downtown Marquette as well as Northern Michigan University. Negaunee and Ishpeming also get some of the additional traffic.

In addition, a single business entity like Lundin’s mining operation has a huge impact on the local economy. Instead of being able to travel 21 miles on a straight, north/south path between its mine and processing centers, each of the company’s trucks is forced to travel roughly 50-60 miles one way.

As a result, many local officials wanted County Road 595 built and still do. A big reason is to support a local employer of more than 300 workers, they say.

When Ford Motor Co. built a now-closed plant in Wixom, “you build interchanges off of I-96,” Iwanicki said. “We have people that like the idea and others that don’t like it. But it’s one of those things that, for the economics of the area, we on the government side thought was for the best.”

EPA officials directed questions concerning County Road 595 to the U.S. Department of Justice, which will be handling the defense against the lawsuit.

“We are aware of the lawsuit,” said Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs, in an email. “We’ll decline to comment at this time.”

In 2012, EPA officials outlined their issues with the proposed road in an eight-page rejection letter:

■The disruption of forested wetlands.

■The need for 22 stream crossings, including eight new crossings.

■The need to clear and excavate a total of 13 miles that were not already within 50 feet of existing smaller roads.

“Based on our review ... the applicant has not demonstrated that the project is the (least environmentally damaging practical alternative), and therefore, it is not possible at this time to provide the conditions necessary for issuance of this permit,” the letter read. “As presently proposed, the project would lead to the significant degradation of aquatic resources, and the proposed wetland and stream mitigation would not fully compensate for the loss of aquatic function and value.”

While many in the Upper Peninsula are frustrated by the EPA’s hard-line stance, others welcome it. Opponents say Eagle Mine sits within the Yellow Dog River watershed, and construction of County Road 595 would create an even greater environmental threat to the area.

But Cynthia Pryor, a board member with the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, said there are other reasons to be wary of the road. She believes the push for the new road is coming from landholders surrounding the proposed path of the road.

“It has to do with these officials who are looking to make money locally,” she said. “There are large tracts of land out there that wouldn’t be able to be developed without this road.”

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