In late 2015, Aquila Resources submitted a mining permit application to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for the “Back Forty Project,” a polymetallic sulfide mine proposed for the bank of the Menominee River, 10 miles west of the town of Stephenson, MI. This stretch of the Menominee River is also known as “Sixty Islands.”
According to the permit application, Aquila intends to construct an 800′ deep open pit mine adjacent to the river, with a cut-off wall (to limit the movement of groundwater) less than 100′ from the river, dangerously close to the flood line. In addition to mining activities, the Back Forty calls for on-site crushing, milling, and refining through the use of floatation, separation and the use of cyanide. Two different tailings basins will be constructed to contain the waste-rock slurry, or what the industry calls “mine slimes”.
The Back Forty would be a sulfide mine; tests show that most of the ore and surrounding rock is “reactive” – that is, it forms sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. After mining is completed, Aquila proposes to backfill their deep pit with waste-rock and tailings slurry. Some tailings will remain as permanent features of the landscape, continuing to produce acid mine drainage for decades or centuries.
Aquila Resources is an exploration-stage Canadian ‘Junior’ mining company with no previous mining experience, traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Aquila has hired several outside contractors to prepare the Back Forty permit applications, collect baseline data, analyze geochemistry, evaluate the site, etc. Aquila applied for a 7 year “open pit” mining permit, telling the State of Michigan there would be “no underground mining” and that “underground mining is not a feasible” method for the Back Forty orebody — but they regularly tell their investors that the Back Forty is in fact a 16 year mine, with an “open pit phase” followed by an “underground mining phase.” Aquila is also proposing two mines in northern Wisconsin, and has claimed they could “ship” ore to the Back Forty site for milling, which would add unknown quantities of waste tailings, and dramatically increase environmental risks posed by the Back Forty site in the long term.
PERMIT APPLICATIONS NEEDED FROM MICHIGAN DEQ
Aquila Resources needs multiple permits in order to proceed with the Back Forty Project: (1) a mining permit authorizing construction of the mine, haul roads, onsite milling and processing facilities, and tailings basins for waste-rock; (2) a wetlands permit that would authorize the direct and indirect destruction and impairment of wetlands caused by dewatering of the open pit mine, groundwater drawdown, filling and dredging of wetlands, and destruction from mining and facility construction; (3) a wastewater discharge permit (known as a NPDES permit) authorizing water treatment and discharge of industrial wastewater to the Menominee River; and (4) an air quality permit, permitting airborne pollution (particulates) from ore blasting, rock dust from milling, vehicle emissions, refinery exhaust, etc.
STATUS OF BACK FORTY PERMIT APPLICATIONS
- Back Forty Project Mining Permit application
This is Aquila’s permit application under Part 632, Michigan’s rules governing nonferrous metallic mining, reviewed by a Mining Team coordinated by MDEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals. The mining permit application (MPA) consists of sixteen PDFs (six volumes addressing the Back Forty mine project, and ten volumes addressing the mine’s Environmental Impact Assessments) – more than 37,500 pages in length. Status: ISSUED. Background: The mining permit application was deemed “administratively complete” in late 2015; an initial public meeting was held in January 2016. Public comment on the draft mining permit application was requested and received. MDEQ did not acknowledge or respond to any comments. In May 2016, MDEQ requested additional information (see: 197 questions for Aquila). In June, Aquila sent a response document to the MDEQ. The MDEQ announced their preliminary approval of the mining application on September 2nd, 2016. A public hearing was held on October 6, 2016. Final public comment was accepted through November 3rd, 2016. SWUP submitted extensive written comments on the Aquila Back Forty mining permit application. On December 28th, Michigan approved the Back Forty Mining Permit; MDEQ published a press release headlined “Aquila Back Forty project gains conditional approvals by MDEQ; faces significant remaining hurdles”; this press release disappeared midday, replaced by a second press release titled “Aquila Back Forty project gains two permit approvals by MDEQ.” The revised press release does not use the phrases “significant remaining hurdles” or “conditional.” MDEQ did not respond to requests for an explanation of these significant revisions. PERMIT LINK: Permit issued 12-28-16, Aquila Back Forty Mining Permit (Part 632) and Compiled Responses to Public Comments Received by the MDEQ on the Aquila Back Forty Project. Updated – March 1, 2017: “A person who is aggrieved by an order, action, or inaction of the department or by the issuance, denial, revocation, or amendment of a mining permit under this part may file a petition with the department requesting a contested case hearing…” Two contested case petitions have been filed: one by an adjacent landowner, and another by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. According to a press release from the tribe, “The MDEQ and Aquila Resources Inc. are well aware of the Menominee Indian Tribe’s close cultural connection to this area and our serious concern in regards to our cultural resources and mounds, including our ancestral burial sites located within the impact area of the proposed mine. Despite these valid and well documented concerns, a full evaluation of the cultural resources and mounds threatened by this project never occurred.”
- Back Forty Wetlands Permit application
On January 17, 2017, Aquila Resources submitted a Wetlands permit application to the MDEQ. This wetland delineations of the Back Forty mining site, wetland hydrology, analysis of wetlands impacts and wetland losses due to dewatering, groundwater drawdown, filling and dredging of wetlands, and destruction from mining and facility construction, and a proposed wetland mitigation plan (to offset the loss of wetlands caused by the mining activity). On January 26, 2017, MDEQ sent a Correction Request to Aquila, outlining a list of significant problems, including errors and omissions. Aquila had 30 days to respond to MDEQ’s Wetlands correction request, but they’ve since been granted a deadline extension. Status as of December 8, 2017: Public Noticed. Public Comment Period: OPEN. DOWNLOAD THE WETLAND PERMIT FILES — directly from the DEQ’s MiWaters system (10 files in all).
- National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit (NPDES) application
Aquila’s NPDES Permit application includes technical information about Aquila’s plans for water supply, water usage, water pollutants, water treatment (additives, facility plans, treatment technologies), stormwater plan, contact water basins, expected quality of wastewater, location of outfalls (piping wastewater discharge to the Menominee River), contaminant limits, discharge flows/rates, toxic pollutant data, biological toxicity testing data, and Aquila’s Anti-Degradation statement. PERMIT LINKS: Aquila Back Forty NPDES permit application. The NPDES was public noticed on August 3, 2016. A public hearing was held on October 6, 2016. Final public comment on the NPDES permit was accepted thru November 3rd, 2016. Status: ISSUED.
- Michigan Air Use Permit – Permit to Install
Under review by the MDEQ’s Air Quality Division, this permit authorizes air pollution from the Aquila Back Forty mining project. including fugitive dust from mine blasting, crushing, processing, transportation, vehicle emissions, onsite refinery/furnace emissions, etc. Emissions include particulate matter (particles that can be inhaled), nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, and lead; other contaminants of special concern include arsenic, cadmium, and copper. Status: ISSUED. Background: Public comment was accepted thru November 3rd, 2016. A public hearing was held on October 6, 2016. Final public comment on Aquila’s Air Use permit was accepted thru November 3rd, 2016. PERMIT LINKS: Summary of the Aquila Back Forty Mine “Proposed Project Summary“; FINAL Permit to Install (PTI) Application No. 205-15; and Compiled Responses to Public Comments received by MDEQ Air Quality Division concerning Aquila’s Air Use Permit to Install.
FACTS AND THREATS
- Aquila’s Back Forty open pit mine will be constructed ~100 feet from the Menominee River. Because this is a SULFIDE mine, the mine’s proximity raises serious flooding and inundation risks.
- Any mine-related water contamination would threaten the health of the Menominee’s fish populations and recreational fishing, especially Lake Sturgeon. Millions of dollars have been invested in the recovery of sturgeon in the Menominee River, where they are threatened but “stable” after years of collaborative sturgeon habitat restoration efforts by Michigan and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, with assistance from federal agencies, fishing clubs and nonprofit environmental groups such as the River Alliance of Wisconsin.
- The Back Forty Mine targets a section of the Menominee River considered a world class smallmouth bass fishery – one of the best in North America! Fishing clubs are deeply concerned about the future of Smallmouth Bass Fishing on the Menominee River, as are the small businesses, including river guiding companies, that depend on the health of the river.
- The Back Forty project is poised to destroy cultural resources of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, including archaeological sites considered by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin to be important cultural properties, related to the tribe’s Origin Story. The mouth of the Menominee River is the origin place of the Menominee people and forms the basis of Menominee origin stories, traditions and tribal identity. Menominee tribal archaeologist Dr. David Overstreet and Dr. Marla Buckmaster, Northern Michigan University professor emeritus of Archaeology, have extensively studied the garden mounds of the Menominee people along the river. The loss of this “northernmost occurrence of ridge field agriculture” wouldn’t just be a loss for the Menominee, it would be a loss for human history.
- The proposed mine threatens natural resources of the Menominee River, an interstate waterway jointly managed by Wisconsin and Michigan. The Menominee River is the state boundary line, and is the largest watershed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Wisconsin Resources Protection Council is actively opposed to this sulfide mine proposal.
- The Center for Science in Public Participation conducted a red-flag review of Aquila Resources mining application and found multiple issues of concern, serious omissions and miscalculations, including specific recommendations and technical actions regarding Aquila’s plans for Water Management, Tailings & Waste Rock Management Facilities, Pit Backfill Metal Leaching, Water Treatment Post Closure, Financial Assurance, and other topics. According to their report:
- “Monitoring wells need to be placed to ensure the tailings facility embankment is not contributing acid or metal leaching to groundwater.”
- “Given the potential for antimony, selenium, and arsenic to mobilize under neutral conditions, monitoring will need to occur at the TWRMF (tailings waste rock management facility) leachate sumps and at monitoring wells on and around the backfilled pit until hydrology and chemistry have stabilized.”
- “The TWRMF cap is designed to reduce infiltration, but given the extremely acidic nature of the material that will be enclosed, the cost of a WTP (water treatment plant) should be included in financial assurance for at least the 20 year post closure monitoring period.”
- “When reviewing the indirect and direct cost estimates for the Back Forty financial assurance, it is obvious that it has been significantly underestimated, especially with regard to the indirect cost calculations(…) the direct costs should be reviewed by a qualified party to correct assumptions that underestimate the cost of reclamation that would need to be conducted by a regulatory agency.”
- The entire planned Back Forty open pit mine and Tailings Waste Rock Management Facility basins (TWRMF) hinge on a single underlying assumption: that the State of Michigan will agree to a proposed LAND SWAP with Aquila Resources.The proposed land exchange threatens critical habitat, including threatened and endangered species. The mining proposal’s open pit mine, contingent upon the land swap, would disturb or destroy tribal archaeological resources, treaty protected natural resources, and Menominee River fisheries.
- Shakey Lakes: The Escanaba State Forest’s Shakey Lakes Oak-Pine Barrens Ecological Reference Area (ERA) and a proposed Biodiversity Stewardship Area (BSA) are adjacent to the proposed mine site. A mine next to this ecological reference area will degrade the ERA, endangering rare habitat, and jeopardize the state’s Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for sustainably-harvested timber.
- Aquila has made fraudulent “Life of Mine” statements! When reviewing any mine proposal, one basic question must be answered: “what is the proposed Life of Mine (LOM)?” In order to correctly calculate a mine’s risks, benefits and cumulative environmental impacts, an accurate LOM estimate is essential. According to Aquila’s permit application, “The (Back Forty) Project will be an open pit mining operation” and the “Life of Mine (LOM) operation is planned to be approximately 7 years.” This is misleading. Elsewhere, Aquila describes the Back Forty project as having a “16 year life of mine (LOM), of which 12.5 million tonnes is open-pit and 3.6 million tonnes is underground.” Back Forty is described as a 16 year mine in Aquila’s press releases, in communications with the Menominee Indian Tribe, and in letters to investors and local community leaders. According to their Project Fact Sheet: “we support a transparent process(…) visit our website at aquilaresources.com/projects/back-forty-project for more information.” Visitors to Aquila’s website find a 16 year mine described.
- The design of the Back Forty Project (an open pit sulfide mine on a river) is described as comparable to Wisconsin’s Flambeau Mine (another open pit sulfide mine on a river). Does the Flambeau Mine prove that riverside sulfide mining can be done safely? Absolutely not — get the facts: https://deertailpress.
files.wordpress.com/2016/06/ flambeau-mine_gauger_jun2016__ final_l.pdf
- Because the Back Forty would be a sulfide mine, it threatens to leach sulfuric acid, which is extremely hazardous to freshwater rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater. Again, the Center for Science in Public Participation warns that the mine’s “ARD (Acid Rock Drainage) risk is very high. Most material contains sulfides… (…) All tailings are expected to generate acid, with the exception of tailings produced in year 3 of mining. Additionally, over 75% of the waste rock is expected to generate acid.” Sulfide mining could pollute groundwater or devastate the Menominee River, which drains into Lake Michigan.
Don’t let sulfide mining undermine the health of the Menominee River. Defend the clean water and wild places of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Join your neighbors and concerned citizens on BOTH sides of the Menominee River in opposing the Aquila Back Forty sulfide mining project!
Thanks to a supporter’s Freedom of Information Act request, Save the Wild U.P. has received copies of Public Comments on Aquila’s Back Forty Project, received by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality between December of 2015 and March 2016. It is now clear that over 2,000 members of the public – including local residents, landowners, fishing enthusiasts, business owners, county officials, educators, tourists, tribal members, scientists, environmentalists and other concerned citizens – wrote to MDEQ to convey serious concerns about the proposed sulfide mine project! Comments were expressed though emails, letters, editorials, technical analysis, handwritten messages, and signature petitions. Given serious concerns about the fate of public comments, and a perceived lack of transparency from the DEQ, Save the Wild U.P. is making these files available for review: http://bit.ly/BackForty-FOIA-Public-Comments
- Wisconsin Public Radio: Tribe Members, Others Oppose Proposed Mine Near Menominee River
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Mine proposed on Michigan-Wisconsin border prompts concerns
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Companies consider mining for gold in Wisconsin
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Mining firm sees gold in U.P. hills – but some are wary of environmental effects
- Keweenaw Now: Environmentalists criticize proposed open-pit sulfide mine near Menominee River
- WNMU-FM: Plans for Upper Peninsula mine resurrected
- Anishnaabe News: Aquila Resources – putting their mine where our river mouth is?
- Save the Wild U.P.: Concerned citizen questions DEQ on Aquila Back Forty Project
- Will Michigan DEQ Reject Fraudulent Mine Permit?
- National Wildlife Federation: Dangerous Mediocrity (comparative analysis of sulfide mining regulation, Michigan summary)
- Environmental Health News: Sacred Water
- Environmental Health News: Mining Leaves a Wisconsin Tribes Hallowed Sites at Risk
- Green Bay coverage of October 6th public hearing
AQUILA’S PRESS RELEASES
Aquila Press Releases discussing the Back Forty Project
- June 13, 2016: Aquila provides Back Forty permit status update
- June 1, 2016: Orion Mine Finance increases ownership stake in Aquila Resources through exercise of warrants
- May 12, 2016: Aquila Resources Files Q1 2016 Results and Provides Corporate Update
- April 11, 2016: Aquila Improves Gold and Zinc Metal Recoveries at its Back Forty Project
- March 30, 2016: Aquila Resources Files 2015 Financial Results and Provides Corporate Update
- Jan. 20, 2016: Aquila Resources strengthens management with appointment of Cliff Nelson as Vice President of US Operations
- Jan. 13, 2016: Aquila commences Feasibility Study on Back Forty project
- Jan. 6, 2016: Drilling at Aquila’s Back Forty project returns 2.8 meters of 38.5 g/t gold; 231.8 g/t silver overlying zinc and copper rich massive sulfides
- Nov. 26, 2015: MDEQ Determines Aquila’s Permit Application for its Back Forty Project is Administratively Complete
- Nov. 12, 2015: Aquila Resources submits mine permit application for its Back Forty Project with MDEQ
Work with us! Contact the Mining Action Group at (906) 662-0037, or email us at miningactiongroupUPEC@gmail.com for more information – no matter your time or talent, we’ll find a great fit for you!