I've been keeping my eyes on a story for the last several weeks now that hasn't gotten much, if any play in local media outlets. That isn't entirely surprising given that the saga is unfolding in far northern Wisconsin, in Iron and Ashland Counties, and it's not always easy to keep up with things happening elsewhere when so many ridiculous things are happening in your own backyard (although Gov. Walker thinks you're ready to put it all behind you).
So far the story is a little murky and I'll have to wait to write about some of what I've been hearing until I can confirm it (I think a trip north might be in order, too). This is what I do know, though, and I think it's well worth everyone's time to get themselves up to speed on it.
Earlier this year, news got out that Republicans were working on legislation that would significantly ease the permitting process specifically for a proposed taconite (iron) mine site on the Gogebic/Penokee Range that runs through Ashland and Iron Counties.
The company behind the initial mine proposal is Gogebic Taconite (GTAC), and, if approved as is, the site would be the "biggest mine ever seen in Wisconsin" at 4 miles long, 1/3 mile wide and at least 900 feet deep.
A study paid for by GTAC puts the number of jobs that would be created by the project at "approximately 2,800 mining-related and ancillary jobs in the 12-county Gogebic region," along with "approximately $1.4 billion in total state and local tax revenue over the expected 35-year life of the first phase of the mine."
Sounds pretty cherry, right?
No one would argue that mining doesn't bring jobs, or that jobs aren't especially important now in the midst of what appears to be a so-called double-dip recession. That's what makes all the other facts about such a project so delicate a matter.
Let's be straight, here, though: Various kinds of mining have already wreaked havoc on towns and cities in the northern parts of our state and across the country. The companies tend to move in and become the primary source for employment and revenue in an area, often driving down wages overall, and leaving depression and ecological destruction in their wake once they inevitably pull up stakes and leave.
David J. Mladenoff, writing in the Wisconsin State Journal, experienced this cycle first-hand:
I am a native of Hurley on the Gogebic Range. Until the mid-1960s when the original mines closed, my father and uncles were miners, and my grandfathers before them. When the companies left in the 1960s, they took thousands of jobs and left nothing but poverty.
Passing through Hurley today is a painful sight. The area has been in decline for 40 years. Before reasonable laws existed, mining companies took wealth and left poverty.
Mladenoff goes on to note that the 30-year "first phase" of the mine, which I already noted above, is the lifespan of the commercially viable ore that can be extracted. After that, just one generation in, it's likely the mine's operations would either cease or significantly scale back.
There's also the matter of environmental degradation, and this is where we find ourselves in some very interesting waters. The yet-to-be-introduced mining bill, co-authored by Sen. Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee) and Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee), would significantly speed up the permitting process -- one that can currently take years but which allows for community involvement and proper environmental impact studies -- by severely limiting the role of the Department of Natural Resources.:
Under current law, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regulates mining for metallic minerals. The laws under which DNR regulates metallic miningapply to mining for ferrous minerals (iron) and mining for nonferrous minerals, such as copper or zinc. This bill creates new statutes for regulating iron mining and modifies the current laws regulating metallic mining so that they cover only mining for nonferrous minerals.
The full text of the bill is available here (PDF). I'll be reading over it my thoroughly in coming days to get a better understanding of what all would be changed under it, but what I can see so far is definitely cause for concern. (And why is Honadel, who represents not northern Wisconsin but South Milwaukee, so interested in mining? Turns out his district is the home of the world's largest mining equipment manufacturer, Bucyrus.)
If passed, the legislation would all but cut out input from locals and the indigenous tribes that call the area home. This isn't entirely surprising, given what happened with (rightful) opposition to the Crandon mine.
GTAC President Bill Williams even told a reporter that the company might abandon their plans entirely if the process took too long -- and there's very recent word that they may have done just that: "As of this AM Gogebic Taconite, citing lack of local support for the proposed mine, has closed its office in Hurley, WI and reassigned personnel to other projects," wrote a northern Wisconsin blogger who goes by the name "Woods Person."
Why, though? Opposition to the bill hasn''t necessarily equaled opposition to the mine itself, and several administration officials and legislators are actively supporting the whole thing. Indeed, Wisconsin Manufacturer's and Commerce has also thrown their considerable weight behind both the bill and the mine. even before the former's introduction:
"Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has been running ads for nearly two weeks and calling the bill the 'Jobs for Generations Act.'"
In Milwaukee, the ad has been tailored to mention Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who is the subject of a recall election.
WMC tweaks the message in other markets where five other Republican senators are facing a recall and uses another where recalls aren't in play.
And if the mine contains as much taconite ore as they think (about 2.2 billion tons), and taconite prices hold true (about $200/ton), GTAC would be walking away from hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. Given that GTAC is owned by Cline Resource and Development Group, which is in turn owned by billionaire Chris Cline (who makes most of his money off coal mining), it would seem like an odd choice. Why walk away from all of that?
I doubt they have -- not really, anyway. You can bet we haven't heard the last from Cline and co. in regards to this mine.
While we wait for them to play their next hand, though, it's well worth the time to more closely examine the legislation, which is still likely to be introduced in the next couple of months. We have to decide how best to balance the economic interests of the state with the environmental -- which, it's worth mentioning, are not mutually exclusive.
The proposed mine site would have a major impact on some of the most pristine and cherished natural landscapes in the state:
The Penokee Rangeis 25 miles of elevated land that is home to hardwood forest, rivers and streams, wetlands, and two lakes. Therefore, the land is a crucial home to wolves, bald eagles, songbirds, rare plants, and countless other animals that rely on the forested community.
The range is also critical for clean water resources. Over 200 inches of snow each year provides fresh clean water that supports the Bad River Watershed and Lake Superior. The Kakogon and Bad River coastal wetland complex on Lake Superior are known as "Wisconsin's Everglades" The Kakogon slough was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1973.
Large-scale taconite mining threatens local community's air and water. The area's surface and groundwater provides drinking water for the cities of Ashland, Mellen, Highbridge, Marengo, Odanah and Upson The current and future tourism economy is also threatened by the destruction of the forest and aquatic habitats of important and vulnerable birds and other wildlife including many endanged, threatened and special concern species.
The proposed mine involves extracting taconite by removing about 650 feet of overburden and creating a narrow pit around 4 miles long, up to 900 feet deep and a quarter-mile wide. The overburden would be dumped in massive tailings piles along the northwest side of the Penokee-Gogebic Range and at the headwaters of the Bad River Watershed. These large tailings piles have the potential to generate acid rock drainage if sulfide minerals are present in the waste rock.
I'll have more on this in the near future as I'm able to talk to more people directly involved on all sides of the issue.