Bill Heart of Trout Unlimited goes fly fishing on the Tyler Forks River. A proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin raises concerns about water pollution
Iron ore made this town, and many people believe an open-pit mine will help revive the fortunes of this once-bustling community.
“We need jobs now – not 10 years from now,” said hardware store owner Jack Giovanoni, who supports plans for a $1.5 billion mine 20 miles away.
But the project is emerging as a classic jobs-vs.-environment battle as opponents question how a large mine could influence another natural asset of the region – its water resources.
While the developer, Gogebic Taconite, hasn’t formally applied for a construction permit, the project is coming under fire from environmental groups and from a nearby Indian tribe.
The Bad River band of Lake Superior Chippewa voted to formally oppose the mine this spring.
And in a significant development, the tribe is poised to win new powers to govern water-quality standards that could affect the operations of the mine.
The tribe and the proposed mine are in the 1,000-square-mile Bad River watershed, a major tributary to Lake Superior.
The tribe, whose reservation is on the shore of Lake Superior, is close to receiving approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would allow it to set water standards on tribal properties.
This would enable the tribe to impose limitations on water users that operate upstream and outside the reservation, as well, state and federal officials said last week.
“The Bad River people stand to bear the environmental brunt of this mine,” Tribal Chief Michael Wiggins Jr. said at his office in Odanah.
Two of the tribe’s main concerns:
Will the water-intensive needs of an open pit mine and its processing plant reduce flows downstream and harm drinking water, fishing and wild rice beds on tribal lands?
Will sulfide chemicals in the waste rock seep into groundwater, streams and wetlands and harm water quality?
Gogebic Taconite says the company will avoid such problems.
Bill Williams, president of the company, said the processing plant will recycle its water. While there will be water loss in processing the ore, it won’t be sufficient to harm the watershed, he said.
As for the potential of sulfide pollution, early indications show that the region’s rock doesn’t have high concentrations. If it turns out the chemical content is higher, “there is no way that the mine will ever be permitted,” said Williams, who has worked on mines in Spain, Peru, Minnesota and Michigan.
Gogebic Taconite is owned by the Cline Group, a privately held mining company based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., with coal interests in Illinois and other parts of Appalachia.
Gogebic has an option on the mineral rights for 22,000 acres covering 22 miles of a mountain range known as the Gogebic or Penokee that runs through northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Plans call for operating the first phase for 35 years, but officials say the deposit, 20% to 35% iron ore, is significant enough to continue mining for the next century.
The Gogebic range in these parts rises several hundred feet above Highway 77 in Iron and Ashland counties, and is used for logging, as well as hunting and other recreational uses.
Since Gogebic’s plans became known, Bill Heart of Ashland, past chair of Trout Unlimited in Wisconsin, has been making visits with his fly rod to the Tyler Forks River, the closest river to the mine.
Last Tuesday morning, he caught and released a steady succession of brook trout, nearly stomped on a wood turtle – a threatened species – and nibbled on his first wild strawberry of the season.
“This river – these little streams out here and what they carry – make a difference,” said Heart, who is worried the mine will harm the watershed.
“Everything flows downstream.”
Life will change considerably if the Department of Natural Resources and other regulatory agencies approve the project, which Gogebic hopes to start operating in about five years.
In the initial phase, miners would cut a 4-mile-plus swath between Ballou Creek in Ashland County and the Tyler Forks in Iron County, which flows through Copper Falls State Park.
Plans call for digging a pit 1,000 feet deep to extract rock. A processing plant on-site would crush and concentrate the ore, baking it into marble-sized pellets used to make steel. Two trainloads of pellets would lumber out of the mine each day.
The Gogebic range has been mined intermittently since the late 1800s; and in Hurley, mining is as much a part of the city’s legacy as the Packers are in Green Bay.
Many of the streets bear the names of minerals, including the infamous Silver St., Hurley’s main drag where bars and strip joints once catered to off-duty miners.
Silver St. is tamer these days – the last iron mined in this part of Wisconsin was the Cary mine, which closed in 1965.
“The range never recovered from the collapse of mining,” said Paul Sturgul, a Hurley attorney who is chairman of the local mining committee appointed by the Iron County Board.
Sturgul, whose father was a miner for 22 years, supports Gogebic’s proposal to mine the ore – if it can be done safely without harming the environment.
“This could be the last gasp for the Gogebic range,” he said.
To underscore the significance of the project, the Hurley Area Chamber of Commerce last month collected 2,040 signatures in a week and a half and sent them to lawmakers, urging them to back the mine.
Supporters believe the mine would jump-start a troubled economy. Iron and Ashland counties are poorer, older and less educated than the state average.
Food stamp usage is higher here, Iron County figures show.
Median household income in Iron County in 2009 was $34,210, or 32% below the statewide average, according to the most recent U.S. census figures.
One quarter of the population is 65 or older, projected to rise to 38% by 2030, according to the state Department of Workforce Development. Wisconsin’s 65-and-older population is 14%.
As for education, 15% of the county’s population has a college degree. The statewide average is 26%.
“We are basically losing our young people to other places,” said Jeff Gulan, principal of Hurley’s K-12 school.
In fact, Iron County’s population is the lowest in at least 100 years. Census figures reported a population of 5,916 people in 2010. It reached its peak in 1920 at 10,261.
“I can’t see anything else that will bring this area back,” said Jack Giovanoni, owner of Giovanoni’s True Value Hardware, which has been in his family since 1941.
But business is at its lowest point ever. Gogebic’s 700 mining jobs – with average salaries and benefits of nearly $83,000 a year – would be a boon to the local economy, he said.
Gogebic’s own economic analysis estimates the mine would stimulate a total of 2,834 jobs during the first 35 years of operation as truckers, rail workers, professional people and businesses move into the area.
Like many in Hurley, Giovanoni is frustrated by the opponents and their claims that the mine will harm the environment.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said, gazing downtown from his driveway a few blocks away.
In a meeting with editors and reporters of the Journal Sentinel last week, Gov. Scott Walker said the mine is “something we should pursue,” but added the state can’t neglect its duty to enforce environmental regulations.
“If we can set a standard that shows we can be environmentally responsible, you’re talking about literally thousands of jobs that are generational,” Walker said.
Awaiting legislative action
Gogebic had planned to drill exploratory holes this year, but is putting the work on hold until lawmakers take up legislation that would ease the way to construct a mine. Staff, meanwhile, are evaluating other projects in the Midwest, according to the company.
This spring, legislators balked at fast-tracking a bill as they grappled with the budget deficit and collective bargaining rights of public employees.
Though never formally introduced, a draft bill heavily influenced by the company was widely circulated.
It would have required the DNR to act on an iron-mining permit within 300 days and eliminated an appeal process. Wetland protections would also have been weakened.
A bill could be back before the Legislature this fall.
“We need jobs and clean water, and we can’t live here without either one of them,” said Michele Wheeler, executive director of the Ashland-based Bad River Watershed Association.
“We are going to be the guinea pig for any legislation that comes out, so we really needed to understand what is going to happen.”
Wiggins, the tribal chief, opposes any changes to the state’s mining laws, and said that mining advocates’ talk of jobs tends to marginalize the value of tourism and the importance of clean water to indigenous people.
He sent Walker a letter in May complaining that the DNR authorized Gogebic to do exploratory drilling without soliciting comments from the tribe and others.
“If we didn’t stand up and exert ourselves, and sound our voices, we are going to be railroaded,” Wiggins said.
In June, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and executive assistant Scott Gunderson, a former Republican legislator, joined Wiggins to tour the sloughs and wild rice beds that surround the Bad River.
“It quickly became apparent – and I say this with all due respect – that Miss Stepp and Mr. Gunderson were not familiar with the negative environmental impacts of the iron mining process,” Wiggins said.
Stepp agreed she did not know of the specific examples Wiggins had mentioned. “But I am not unaware of the problems associated with mining and the issues in the industry,” she said.
“My job was to go up there and reassure him that we are going to be diligent protectors of the environment.”
James B. Nelson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Cross posted from here