Hanging in the balance
Open pit mining debate risks the welfare of northern Wisconsin's natural resources and beauty
An iron ore mine proposed for northern Wisconsin could have been the largest in the world. That was before Gogebic Taconite announced on March 7 it would no longer seek to extract iron ore from thousands of acres of pristine forest lands that extend from Mellen in Ashland County to near Upson in Iron County. The mineral rights to the land are owned by Gogebic Taconite's parent company, the Florida-based Cline Group.
The mining company dropped the project within hours of the state senate failing to pass legislation that would have streamlined the permitting process and relaxed environmental regulations on mining operations. Gov. Scott Walker and some lawmakers said they were willing to work on the bill, but the company's withdrawal all but killed expectations a compromise could be reached by the end of the legislative session a week after this issue went to press.
Gogebic Taconite proposing an open-pit mine that could be 4.5 miles long, 1.5 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep, according to the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. The Cline Group operates coal mines in West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois. Gogebic Taconite did not return calls for this story.
The promise of hundreds of jobs in the economically depressed area of north-central Wisconsin caught the eye of state legislators. Gogebic Taconite could not secure the "regulatory certainty" it sought with changes to current Wisconsin mining laws.
Many environmental groups and the Bad River Chippewa Band opposed the legislation, Assembly Bill 426, claiming it would have gutted existing environmental protections and effectively silenced the public process. Following Assembly approval of the bill, Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. said the tribe would consider its legal options as a sovereign entity to force the state to include the tribe in discussions related to the mine.
North-central Wisconsin is home to some of the highest quality rivers and trout streams in the country. Many of these rivers are Outstanding and Exceptional Resource Waters, a designation awarded to less than 1 percent of Wisconsin waters. Cold waters course off the Penokee Range, giving birth to hundreds of clear rivulets and streams. These streams ultimately flow into the Bad River which empties in the cleanest fresh water lake in the world, Lake Superior. The mine, resultant tailing disposal, and tailing ponds would significantly change this landscape.
Recreational opportunities abound in this area given the high topography, clean rivers, streams and lake effect snows. Copper Falls State Park, Madeline Island's Big Bay State Park and a myriad of other recreational areas could be affected by a large mining operation.
State senators Dale Schultz, a Republican, and Robert Jauch, a Democrat - both of which served on the Senate Select Committee on Mining Jobs before it was abruptly disbanded by Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald - proposed a compromise bill and held a listening session in Mellen along with Senators Tim Cullen and Jim Holperin and Representative Janet Bewley, all Democrats.
This was the first public session located adjacent to the proposed mine site. More than 160 local residents showed up for a discussion of the proposed compromise, the Wisconsin Way Mining Reform Act (WWMRA). Included in the bipartisan proposal were safeguards for air and water, allowances for public input on damage issues, protection for local taxpayers without increasing the overall tax burden for mining companies, and increasing mine proceeds to local communities. Jauch and Bewley have been outspoken about the need to protect the area from environmental problems.
Over 35 citizens spoke at the Mellen public meeting, many of them saying the area needs jobs but not at the expense of the environment. Participants in the hearing were primarily civil and polite.
"We know they are going to rape our land. That's mining," Mellen Mayor Joseph Barabe said. "We didn't know they would rape us too. We want a mine, but not this mine" that results from AB 426. "There will not be a second chance on this," he said.
Speaking at P&H Mining in Milwaukee, Gov. Walker said he did not support the bipartisan compromise.
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