A proposed open pit sulfide mine along the Wisconsin-Michigan border, owned by Canada-based Aquila Resources, has stirred controversy ever since the Menominee Tribe first highlighted the danger it would pose to their sacred lands over a year ago. Called the Back Forty mine, it would operate right in the heart of the Great Lakes basin.
“This Back Forty Mine Project will desecrate an area of sacred and cultural significance to our Menominee people as well as an important historical landscape to this country,” Douglous Cox, chairman of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, testified before Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality in June 2019. The organization has since been renamed the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).
More on the Back Forty Project can be found in a report by Urban Milwaukee headlined “Proposed Mine A Ticking Time Bomb.”
“In addition,” Cox continued, according to the Urban Milwaukee story, “this is being done in contravention of laws, policies and practices governing meaningful consultation with tribes and protection and preservation of our cultural, sacred and burial sites of our nation. There is no possible mitigation for destroying Menominee cultural resources. Even if Aquila and the state of Michigan were to have the best intentions, there are no actions or steps that can make this place whole again or restore it once lost.”
Wisconsin once had legislative protection against these types of mines, called the “Prove It First” laws. These required sulfide mines, like Back Forty, to first prove that they could operate safely without polluting the environment before opening up shop. It was a tall order and many companies could not comply with it. Former Gov. Scott Walker repealed the protections in 2017.
In 2016 under the Obama Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected Aquila’s attempts to obtain a wetlands permit in Michigan. When the company reapplied in 2017, a document created by the State of Michigan said many of the issues EPA pointed out “have not been fully addressed.” Despite these and other concerns, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved the wetlands permit.
Aquila has referred to Back Forty as its “flagship” project on its website’s homepage. The company also has two other projects, dubbed “Bend” and “Reef,” which are both in Wisconsin. In Taylor County, the Bend Project is a copper-gold deposit under 5,560 acres in the Chequamegon National Forest, including both federal and private land. The Reef Project, located in Marathon County, has the “potential” to host a gold deposit, and would function as an open pit mine. These projects are essentially dormant, with little to no activity compared to their Back Forty cousin.
The Menominee tribe filed a lawsuit against the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, alleging that the government properly utilize it’s authority as Aquila and Back Forty breezed through the state of Michigan’s permit process. In December 2018, however, a judge squashed the legal effort.
That month, Aquila Resources issued a press release stating it was “pleased” about the lawsuit’s dismissal. Aquila urged “the Back Forty will be a safe, disciplined operation” which “supports local community socio-economic development and is protective of the environment.” Similar language was used in May 2019, when the company quoted a judge’s decision that the mine “will not pollute, impair, or destroy the air, water, and other natural resources, or the public trust in those resources.”
Aquila’s ambitions have been consistently met with protest by indigenous tribes, environmental activists, and locals who fear for the integrity of the Menominee River and other connected waterways. If it survives the final permit review processes by the State of Michigan, the Back Forty would represent an imposing industrial project along the river. As an open pit mine, the project would rest near the river bank, collecting waste products called tailings as long as it’s active.
Mine tailings are normally contained by a dam or wall-like structures, and are the company’s responsibility to manage and treat. When those dams spill, however, the ecological consequences can be devastating. In Brazil, the collected tailings from a mine project breached the containment dam, resulting in the deaths of 270 people. The Brazilian government subsequently banned the dam design that had failed. That’s the design the Back Forty mine is set to utilize.
“These dam failures are not limited to old technology or to countries with scant regulation,” explained Dr. David Chambers, an expert on tailings dam failures, in the Urban Milwaukee report. “Previous research indicates that most tailings dam failures occur at operating mines and 39% of such failures worldwide occur in the United States.”