Appalachia, Here We Come
Penokee-Gogebic Iron Range via wisconsinbirds.org
What you do get when you make a 20-mile long, 1/3 mile deep open-pit iron mine in 300 days - a mine that will disrupt millions of gallons of surface and groundwater and leave millions of tons of crushed rock and wet sand lying around?
We may be about to find out in Wisconsin.
The North of Wisconsin and neighboring states have a long, rich history in mining and natural resource-based industries. There are plenty more minerals needed for modern life beneath the northern forests. The question is, how can they be extracted without destroying the landscape and river systems that make Northern Wisconsin the crown jewel of the state?
Wisconsin has learned from past poorly-planned mining projects. We passed laws that require detailed analysis of environmental impacts and require that mining operations avoid or reduce the impacts of new mining proposals. Our world class natural resources do indeed deserve world class protection!
Open (pit) for business
But now, a company that has never before done business in Wisconsin has purchased a nearly 40 square mile area in Ashland and Iron counties with a deep, narrow iron deposit, seated in the ancient Penokee Range which forms the southern boundary of the Lake Superior basin. Their claims:
a) Trust us, there won't be any acid drainage associated with this iron mine, and
b) We can do all the environmental analysis we need in 300 days, and then we want our permit (and oh yeah, we'd really rather not have opportunities for citizens to challenge our permit along the way).
Pay to play
Who are these guys? Gogebic Taconite/The Cline Group, aka GTAC, affiliated with a mining company in West Virginia, donated $40,000 to Republican candidates in Wisconsin last fall, including Governor Walker and Milwaukee-area Senator Mark Honadel. (Milwaukee is home of Bucyrus, one of the largest manufacturers of mining equipment in the world.)
Senator Honadel and fellow Senator Rich Zipperer of Pewaukee (both are Republicans) have introduced a bill to significantly shorten the environmental review process for new mines, and they hope to have it approved by July. In Senator Zipperer's own words, "I would say they (GTAC) can write whatever they want and we can consider it."
And indeed they did: a draft bill has been just made public, and it reminds one of the flimsy laws that allow mountain-top mining in Appalachia.
Why the rush? Well of course, it's jobs, jobs, jobs, or so they claim. GTAC paid a consultant to paint a rosy picture of all the well-paying, long-term local jobs the operation will create. There is no argument that Northern Wisconsin needs good jobs, but how real are their consultant's numbers? And are these jobs back at corporate headquarters, at the Bucyrus plant, or are they really local? And what about the boom and bust cycles so common to mining operations, like the giant iron mines just across the border in Minnesota's Iron Range, or the increased mechanization of mining these days?
Perhaps a little ground-truthing is in order before throwing away our painstakingly developed mining regulations for the unproven promise of jobs.
Bad for the Bad
And then there's the Penokee Range and the pristine Bad River Watershed. There are over 125 miles of trout streams that drain from the Penokees, joining together to form the Bad River and flowing to Lake Superior. The headwaters for the whole system is on one side of the proposed mine, and the tributaries on the other. Hmmmm, wonder what a wide and deep ditch between the two will do to the river system? GTAC thinks they can have all the answers in 300 days.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ken Bradbury, one of the state's leading experts in hydrogeology at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, estimates that a bare minimum of two and a half to three years would be necessary to get a true picture to understand how to prevent significant impacts on the waters of the area. The actual scale and phasing of the proposed mine have not yet been made public, but given the lack of groundwater data for that part of the state, data collection and development of credible models for water flow and interaction will require an intensive effort - and a lot more than 300 days.
Stay tuned. While the 186-page bill that lays waste to the state's mining laws and will lay waste to the Penokee Range just saw the light of day. The Legislature quickly scheduled, than just as quickly canceled, a public hearing for the bill. We suspect the outcry over gutting Wisconsin's progressive mining regulations gave them pause, but their foot is barely on the brake for this rushing through the fast-tracking of metallic mining.
Mining operations that don't cut corners, don't destroy the environment and provide real, sustainable local jobs could be an economic boon to Northern Wisconsin. But when an out of state mining company writes its own rules for how to operate here, we have to be ready to call them out.