FILE - The Mackinac Bridge in Michigan

The Mackinac Bridge, connecting Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas, carries vehicles over waters flowing from Lake Michigan and into Lake Huron.

Despite a major legal victory in May, another challenge has prompted additional hearings on the Back Forty Project. Testimony on the potential impact of the mine on the Menominee River and surrounding areas is being conducted in Lansing this week, concluding on Wednesday.  

At issue is whether runoff from the mine will contaminate the river as well as other environmental and cultural concerns expressed by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, notwithstanding Back Forty’s compliance with stringent state and federal environmental regulations.

Back Forty is tentatively scheduled to break ground at the end of 2020, provided the company overcomes the remaining legal challenges to the permits it has already been granted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), formerly called the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The proposed site of the gold, silver, nickel, zinc and copper open-pit mine is located in Menominee County in the western Upper Peninsula. The project is being undertaken by Toronto-based mineral company Aquila Resources Inc. Proponents of the project say it will provide much-needed jobs in an area where unemployment rates hover above 6.3 percent whereas the national average is a significantly lower 4.1 percent. 

In addition to providing jobs, Jason Hayes, environmental director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan educational and research organization, says the project will yield valuable minerals necessary for the construction of medical implements and other high-tech devices.

“The benefits also include significant improvements to the infrastructure of Menominee and will diversify the area’s economy,” Hayes added.

The mine as proposed and permitted would be 2,000 feet by 2,500 feet, 750 feet deep and cover 83 acres, and is projected to be operational for seven years. Back Forty is anticipated to produce 512 million pounds of zinc; 468,000 ounces of gold; 51 million pounds of copper; 24 million pounds of lead; and 4.5 million ounces of silver, according to Aquila’s website.

Last May, Administrative Law Judge David L. Pulter issued his final ruling in a challenge against Back Forty by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and property owner Tom Boerner. Pulter determined “that the proposed mining operation will not pollute, impair, or destroy the air, water and other natural resources, or the public trust in those resources,” in compliance with Michigan’s Non Ferrous Metallic Mining Statute. 

“In 2019, we have continued to advance pre-construction activities in compliance with all permits as issued for Back Forty,” said Barry Hildred, Aquila president and CEO, in a statement issued August 9. 

“In May, we received a favorable administrative court ruling upholding our mine permit and Michigan regulators issued a proposed decision in favor of our permit amendments,” Hildred continued. “In parallel, we continue to evaluate a potential future underground mine at Back Forty while considering all strategic and financial options for the Company and the project.” 

In an email to The Center Square, Aquila consultant Dan Blondeau reiterated the environmental precautions undertaken by the mining company in compliance with stringent state and federal regulatory requirements.  

“Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources all determined that the conditions in our water discharge permit will protect the health of the community, wildlife, and the environment — including the river,” he said.

Regional Editor

Bruce Walker is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s MichiganScience magazine and The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.