By ELIZABETH FERGUSON
Capital News Service
LANSING — A wide range of interests are on the line when Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh decides in February whether to grant land rights for a proposed limestone mine in the Upper Peninsula.
Bill O’Neil, chief of the Forest Resources Division for the DNR, says the agency must ensure the state will benefit from selling land rights to Canadian company Graymont Inc., while preventing environmental risks, considering economic benefits and listening to the opinions of local citizens.
DNR officials have raised numerous concerns since receiving the company’s first land transaction application in 2013. Several officials have recommended that Creagh deny the proposal.
Graymont has proposed to pay 18.75 cents to the state for each ton of limestone mined. Many DNR officials say this rate should be higher and also want the company to reconsider the value of timber and other minerals involved in the 10,000-acre transaction in Mackinac County.
The DNR is weighing the environmental risks. The company plans to build a road or railway through a nearby wetland, and officials want more information about the plan to see if the project is possible without harming a majority of the wetland.
Environmentalists like Marvin Roberson, the Michigan forest policy specialist of the Sierra Club, also have concerns. Roberson said a major environmental challenge is getting communities to understand that although the Upper Peninsula has an abundance of natural resources, those resources aren’t infinite and still deserve protection.
But for many residents and local officials, the mine will bring a much-needed economic boon.
“I’m very supportive of this project,” said Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, who represents the area. “We need the economic development and we need the jobs up here.”
Graymont has predicted the mine’s initial development will create 50 direct and 100 indirect local jobs. If the demand for limestone increases in the future, a limestone processing facility may be created on the site and offer more employment to locals.
If a mine can bring needed economic growth to a community, DNR officials said the agency considers giving up a portion of protected natural resources for the economic opportunity.
“Some of the highest unemployment we have in the state is in this area,” O’Neil said.
Many community members attending a recent public hearing on the proposal in Newberry expressed support for the project as an economic development tool, O’Neil said. But others are not convinced the jobs are worth the tradeoff in potential air and water pollution.
Once a mine begins extraction, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is responsible for preventing and regulating these types of pollutions.
According to Hal Fitch, director of DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals, there is no current law that limits limestone mines, but the department does its best to regulate certain activities associated with these mines. Unregulated drainage from mines can harm aquatic life and drinking water.
The DEQ enforces standards on mines to keep nearby water and air unpolluted.
Graymont already operates a limestone mine in Gulliver, making the proposed development its second mine in Michigan, if approved. Schmidt said he is comfortable with the proposal because Graymont has a track record and has experience working with the state and its environmental restrictions.
The DEQ said limestone mines don’t have as much potential for environmental risks as nickel or copper mines. Unlike those metals, limestone doesn’t form metal discharges, which can create water-contaminating sulfuric acid when exposed to rivers or streams.
“Under our modern regulations, we don’t expect to see serious or significant environmental impacts,” Fitch said. “Now accidents can happen, nothing is ever risk-free, but we think we’ve got pretty good statutory and regulatory structure here to protect the environment and minimize most risks.”
Conversation among the DNR, Graymont, and the public will continue until the department is prepared to make a decision.
Creagh will make the final decision to accept or deny this proposal. The DNR expects him to formally decide on Feb. 12 at the next Natural Resources Commission meeting.
By ELIZABETH FERGUSON