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Townships to meet with DNR on Groveland project

Officials from Norway and Felch townships will meet with Michigan Department of Natural Resources staff June 24 on potentially using the Groveland Mine property for a large-scale solar energy array.

The DNR originally had planned a site visit in April, but it was canceled amid the state stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The rescheduled meeting will start at 10 a.m. June 24 at the DNR office in Felch, then go to the Groveland Mine site the DNR has held since the mid-1990s.

The agency is soliciting proposals from potential solar power developers, such as a utility or private company, to lease a portion of the property — now a brownfield site — for setting up the array and then selling the electricity.

First opened in the 1800s, the Groveland Mine once produced 2 million tons of iron pellets a year, going from underground to open pit mine about halfway through the last century. It employed 500 before being shut down in 1981, with the state taking ownership about 15 years later.

The DNR had been leasing Groveland Mine to Saucon Minerals, which reportedly was exploring production of an iron ore concentrate and an organic fertilizer from discarded materials in the property’s tailing ponds. The 10-year lease with the company, based downstate in Dearborn and Lake Linden, was for about 1,000 acres, reportedly at an initial cost of $3 per acre for the first seven years, rising to $10 per acre by the 10th year.

The Saucon project was projected to be a $71 million investment that would have brought 100 jobs in construction and operations to the area, state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said in a statement in May.

But the DNR in April terminated Saucon’s lease, drawing criticism from McBroom and state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain.

The department has hinged termination on the annual payments being a few weeks late each year, the lawmakers said. But this year, they claimed, Saucon only missed the deadline due to the department taking six weeks to determine it was not going to consider renegotiating the terms of the lease.

A Norway Township official, however, contends Saucon Minerals showed little to no progress during the first seven years of its lease.

Supervisor Don Byczek said Saucon had requested no permits or given any timeline for starting its project.

“The DNR had troubles collecting this money as stated,” Byczek said. “After seven years, the DNR decided to opt out of this agreement.”

Both the Felch and Norway township boards earlier this year endorsed the DNR’s solar array proposal. Norway Township, at the time of the endorsement, had little knowledge of Saucon’s plans, Byczek said.

“The DNR decided to move on to the solar array,” he said.

LaFave and McBroom have acknowledged Saucon made late payments but argue the DNR still showed a potential developer disrespect by terminating the lease. According to LaFave, the DNR stands to gain more state revenue with a solar project.

While McBroom and LaFave have made their displeasure known to the DNR, those state lawmakers have yet to reach out to the township about the matter, Byczek noted. “We have heard from the DNR, but McBroom and LaFave have chosen not to include Norway Township in the discussion,” he said.

Norway Township has about two-thirds of the Groveland Mine property being considered, with the rest in Felch Township.

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