A Michigan state senator from the Upper Peninsula says the federal Environmental Protection Agency has done everything in its power to indirectly shut down a mine near Marquette.

The issue is back in the news because a limited-government legal foundation announced last month it will represent the Marquette County Road Commission in a federal lawsuit against the EPA. The agency has blocked a plan to build a shortcut road to the Eagle Mine in the western Upper Peninsula.

In a phone interview with Michigan Capitol Confidential this week, Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, suggested that the EPA’s real target in the current dispute is the mine. Casperson was the sponsor of a 2004 Michigan law that made the mine possible.

The proposed road has been a contentious issue in the region for more than a year. Last winter Casperson told Michigan Capitol Confidential that court proceedings revealed that the EPA never intended to give the project a fair hearing.

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“What we’ve found out from the EPA FOIAs is consistent with what we know they told Sen. Barbara Boxer," Casperson said in January. Boxer, a Democrat from California, chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee of the U.S. Senate at the time.

“They had clearly made up their minds ahead of time to block the road from being built. The EPA knew they were going to reject the road project from the very beginning,” he added then.

The EPA declined to answer questions, citing the court case.

“This matter remains in litigation in Federal District Court,” the EPA said. “It is an EPA and Department of Justice policy not to comment on matters that are being litigated.”

In June, U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell dismissed the county's suit. But on Sept. 13, Bell said he would consider rehearing the case and set the motion for hearing for Dec. 15 in Marquette.

The California-based Pacific Legal Foundation is representing the road commission and says the dispute is about a local government trying to do good only to be inhibited by a federal agency.

The county road commission wants to build a 21-mile stretch of road called County Road 595 in Humboldt Township, which would connect County Road AAA and US–41. The road would make it easier for the Eagle Mine to connect with its Humboldt Mill and would shorten the round trip between the two locations by 78 miles.

An organization supporting the plan called Stand U.P. says that each day, over 100 commercial vehicles travel through communities on the county’s local roads. It adds that the road plan would help the environment by cutting down fuel consumption and pollution.

County Road 595 would cut fuel use by 464,000 gallons per year, the group claims. Stand U.P. also says the new road “would prevent more than 4,989 tons of air pollution and greenhouse gasses every single year,” reducing air pollution by 56 percent.

Mark Miller, the attorney representing Marquette County on behalf of the legal foundation, said this is an example of good local government being squelched by federal bureaucrats.

“We need good government. What you have here is good government making a good decision for the community,” he said. “Traditionally Pacific Legal tends to be suing the government, but it reflects how much of an overreach this particular case is that we’re getting involved in a case where [Marquette County] is suing the EPA.”

Miller said by killing the county’s new road plan, the EPA has burdened the commissioners with tens of thousands of dollars in costs and years of work since they’ll have to make a new plan.

“If the locals want the road and the state wants the road and the state Department of Environmental Quality believes that the road is good for the environment, who are these bureaucrats in Chicago and Washington D.C. to tell the people up there in the Upper Peninsula in Marquette that they don't know what’s best for them?” Miller said.

Casperson’s bipartisan 2004 bill allowing the mine passed the Legislature unanimously and was signed into law by former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Many Michigan environmental organizations originally went along with the proposal but then reversed course and have opposed the mine and now the road.

Save the Wild U.P., an environmental organization that has opposed the construction plan from the beginning, said in an email the potential damage to the region is too great of a risk.

“This region contains endangered and threatened plants and animals. The potential damage is too great,” said Alexandra Maxwell, the organization's executive director, said in the email. “The EPA’s objections to the construction of this road were valid and protective of a vital watershed that feeds Lake Superior and Judge Bell's recent dismissal of the case was the kind of decision our group and many concerned citizens had been hoping for."

Save the Wild U.P. said the projected road would pass through the Dead River and Yellow Dog Watersheds, the Mulligan Plains, the Voekler Creek, and Wildcat Canyon.

"The EPA, Army Corp of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have all objected to the construction of this road, let alone the objections of residents and property owners of the area who want nothing to do with a mine-traffic road passing their once-isolated and serene camp,” Maxwell said.

But the county’s position has garnered bipartisan support from Michigan’s Legislature, which passed resolutions in favor of the project. U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, who represents part of the U.P., has pledged support for the road commission, as have U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and retired U.S. Sen. Carl Levin.

Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the EPA is ignoring the environmental, economic, and safety interests of the county.

“The actions of the EPA appear to indicate they would prefer to stop mining and energy production in this state and across the nation. Blocking the construction of CR 595 is just one more way they can stifle development and mining jobs.”

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