On January 4, a judge issued a decision denying the issuance of a wetlands permit for Aquila Resources Inc.’s Back Forty Project in Michigan. An administrative law judge for the Michigan Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules determined that Aquila’s groundwater model for the gold and zinc project did not provide a reliable identification of wetland impacts and found the permit application to be administratively incomplete. The judge also determined that Aquila did not provide a complete assessment of potential alternatives to its proposed plan.
Petitioners filed an administrative contested case challenge to the issuance of the Wetlands Permit by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) that was issued June 4, 2018, following years of environmental baseline work and a thorough review process including comment periods and public hearings. The judge convened an evidentiary hearing in June 2019, which ended in January 2020.
The company said it strongly disagrees with the judge’s decision. It said it believes there is a “misunderstanding of the information” concerning the potential for indirect wetlands impacts associated with the Back Forty Project.
Aquila said it worked with EGLE staff during the permitting process to address the technical issues associated with estimating potential indirect wetland impacts, landing on an approach that complied with federal U.S. Army Corps guidelines for estimating and permitting such impacts for mining projects.
The Wetlands Permit was issued with specific conditions that must be satisfied prior to the commencement of construction and operations, including a condition that required EGLE to accept an updated groundwater model. Since the Wetlands Permit was issued, Aquila has been working with EGLE to satisfy the conditions, and the company said it planned to complete the updated groundwater model in 2021.
“Obviously, we are disappointed by the judge’s decision,” Aquila President and CEO Barry Hildred said. “The company is evaluating its alternatives, which include the submission of an updated permit application or appealing the decision to the EGLE environmental review panel.”
He added that the project will only directly impact 11.2 acres of regulated wetlands and he believes Aquila will be able to resolve the cited issues.
Back on December 22, the Ingham County Circuit Court in Michigan upheld the final decision of EGLE to issue the Back Forty mining permit after a lengthy contested case hearing initiated by two petitioners. Subsequent to its issuance by EGLE, the mining permit was upheld by the judge and an environmental review panel made up of technical experts from various fields.
In addition to the mining permit, regulators in Michigan previously granted an air permit, wetlands permit and a water discharge permit for the Back Forty Project.