Back 40 Mine – an environmental, cultural, and economic disaster.

These last months I’ve been engaged with a grass-roots community group, Protectors of the Menominee River (#SavetheMenomineeRiver and #WaterisLife). We meet every week, share a meal, a prayer in Menominee, and make plans for events and demonstrations – except we use the phrase ‘spiritual gathering,’ and, in fact, the life blood of the group is its spiritual connection to the cause it strives to advance.

Protectors of the Menominee River are organized to express opposition to the Back Forty Mine, a project of Aquila Resources, a Canadian mining company. This project has been on Aquila’s agenda (and generated staunch local opposition) for well over a decade, but recently it secured some of the permits it needs from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, and groups in opposition now need to step up their game. Much is at stake.

The Back 40 mine would be located on the Upper Michigan side of the Menominee River, approximately 40 miles upstream from its mouth and 10 miles west of the community of Stephenson, Michigan. The Menominee River is the border between Wisconsin and Michigan from its confluence with the Brule river to its mouth into Green Bay (Lake Michigan) between Marinette, Wisconsin and Menominee, Michigan.

The Back 40 would be an open pit mine accessing a zinc- and gold-rich volcanogenic massive sulfide deposit. The pit would be dug a little over 100 ft from the Menominee river and would cover 80 acres. It would be over 800 feet deep. Mineral-bearing sulfide rock would be processed on site to extract gold, zinc, copper, silver and lead. When the sulfide ores are crushed, the sulfides are exposed to air and water, which catalyzes a chemical reaction that produces highly toxic sulfuric acid. This acid mine drainage can then release harmful metals and drain into nearby rivers, lakes and groundwater sources. Aquila would construct wastewater treatment facilities onsite and process the polluted water before returning it to the Menominee River.

The close proximity of the mine to the Menominee river and the potential for the waste-water treatment process to fail are the first concern of the Protectors of the Menominee River. Acid or toxic metal pollution of the Menominee River would have catastrophic effects on the major breeding area for Lake Michigan sturgeon and would be disastrous for other wild life living in an along the Menominee.

According to Menominee legend, the mouth of the Menominee River is the place of their creation, a sacred place. Moreover, the mine site was once a Menominee village. Ancient burial mounds, agricultural beds, and dance circles remain on the site. The loss of these irreplaceable cultural treasures is a second reason the Protectors of the Menominee River oppose the project.

Aquila Resources presents the Back 40 Mine as a ‘mining and economic development project’ but I find important misrepresentation in their projections of economic effects. They claim their projections are confirmed by an ‘independent study,’ where in fact they refer to a report prepared by the Labovitz School of Business and Economics, Bureau of Business and Economic Research, at the University of Minnesota Duluth. This report is in no way independent – it was commissioned and paid for by Aquila, as the report itself confirms. Shame on the Labovitz school for participating in this charade. Not only is their report misrepresented, it is seriously flawed. It, and all the other economic analyses produced by Aquila, stops projecting economic effects the year the mine stops operating. According to plans filed by Aquila with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, they would take two years to open the mine and seven more years to extract the precious metals and close the mine. Yes, there would be new construction and mining jobs, but none are permanent or even long term. As many other communities have discovered, mining is boom and bust, and the long term (ten years and out) economic effect is recession (as the wage base shrinks) and the attendant rise in unemployment and depletion of community resources. In another publication, Aquila Resources hints the jobs and economic benefits may extend as far out as 20 years, but this contradicts their own mining plan and intention.

Plans for true economic development initiatives – sustainable development initiatives – project their economic impacts beyond the current population to their children and their children’s children. The Back 40 mine would at best constitute a short term boost in jobs for the area, followed by a permanent decline, leaving a community to struggle with recession and unemployment. The project does indeed offer huge generation of wealth, but this wealth goes to Aquila Resources executives and investors, none of whom would remain in (or even ever visit) the community.

If you’re interested in protecting the environment in general and water in particular, preserving cultural artifacts for all of our descendants to experience, or committing community resources and energy to development initiatives that are environmentally, socially, and economically responsible, please take a moment to like the Protectors of the Menominee River facebook page and consider participating in the activities and events you find posted there.

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