Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Friday

January 4, 2013

Regulators deny new road planned near U.P. mine

TRAVERSE CITY — Michigan officials said Thursday they won't grant a permit for a new road near a nickel and copper mine under construction in the Upper Peninsula because of federal regulators' concerns about damage to wetlands and wildlife habitat.

The Marquette County Road Commission wants to build the 21-mile-long linkup between a rural road near the Rio Tinto Eagle Mine and U.S. 41. Rio Tinto originally sought the project, which would provide a convenient route for trucks hauling ore from the mine to a processing mill in Humboldt Township.

The project would affect nearly 26 acres of wetlands and require building 22 stream crossings, according to an application filed with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ issues permits to fill wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can object — and did so in this case.

EPA said the Marquette commission should consider less harmful alternatives and that the local agency's plan to compensate for ecological damage wasn't adequate.

Construction of the road "would have significant direct and indirect impacts on high quality wetland and stream resources, as well as on wildlife," Susan Hedman, administrator for EPA's regional office in Chicago, said in a Dec. 4 letter to DEQ Director Dan Wyant that affirmed the opposition it initially raised last April.

Under the law, DEQ had 30 days after receiving the letter to satisfy the EPA. Wyant said the time frame was too short and the issues too complex to resolve them by the deadline, so his agency couldn't issue the permit.

"It was a tough call," Wyant told The Associated Press in a phone interview. While raising environmental risks, the project would promote economic development, public safety and access to outdoor recreation, he said.

"You try to balance all that," he said. "We felt the applicant had reached that balance; EPA did not."

The road commission could ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue the permit, "but all indications are that (the road) will not be built," Wyant said.

Rio Tinto spokesman Dan Blondeau said the DEQ's decision will not delay development of the mine. Construction is scheduled for completion this year and production of nickel and copper should begin in early 2014, he said.

The decision on the road was disappointing, he said. "It was our preferred route, but we're pleased to have certainty and clarity going forward."

The company likely will transport its ores on an existing roadway network that runs along the northern end of Marquette before reaching southward to U.S. 41 west of town, he said.

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