Mary Annette Pember

Gogebic Taconite and the Penokee Hills: The Battle Rages On

Mary Annette Pember
1/28/14

The battle over building a huge open pit iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills in Northern Wisconsin is heating up on a number of fronts.

Florida based Gogebic Taconite, GTAC, is locked in a battle with tribes and other opponents to build the mine that would be located next to the Bad River Ojibwe reservation. Reservation residents and others maintain that pollution from the mine would have a devastating environmental impact on the huge Bad River watershed that runs through the region and drains into Lake Superior and traditional wild rice sloughs.

GTAC is engaged in a fiery public dispute with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) over how much authority the agency can wield in the permitting process.

GTAC lobbyists helped draft new state mining legislation that passed in early 2013 allowing greater leeway in environmental restrictions and making iron ore mining easier.

Despite the support of the state’s Republican led legislature, GTAC is publicly complaining that the WDNR is overstepping its authority and asking for unnecessary testing and details about the mineral content of the site and other impacts of mining on the local environment.

“All of the tests and modeling we’ve done cost money. (Some studies cost) tens of thousands of dollars a crack. So this should be about what’s necessary and not what’s wanted to satisfy curiosity,” GTAC spokesman Bob Seitz told the Wisconsin Associated Press on January 20, 2014.

Some of GTAC’s fury may have been fueled by an unauthorized leak of an internal WDNR report to the press earlier this month.

According to an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, the report entitled “Taconite Iron Mining in Wisconsin: A Review,” indicates that iron mining does indeed threaten human health and water.

Although the report, a review of research regarding iron mining, isn’t a specific assessment of the proposed mine, it does include information drawing attention to the dry stacking method of storing potentially hazardous waste rock that GTAC intends to use. The report also draws attention to research regarding the danger of runoff from such waste rock according to the story in the Wisconsin State Journal.

“It just gives a laundry list of the kinds of stuff you hear from protestors. There are some good people over there (at the DNR) but this demonstrates that there are some people who also have a bias against mining,” Seitz told the State Journal.

Although Seitz admitted to the State Journal that he hadn’t read the entire report, he criticized it for including information from a researcher who disagrees with GTAC’s findings of the mineral content of rocks at the mining site.

The report was published on the conservative news website, Media Trackers which describes the report as flawed and a hypothesized doomsday scenario lacking credibility. Media Trackers is especially critical of one of the report’s authors, Tom Fitz, professor of geosciences at Northland College in Ashland. Fitz has stated publicly that he found grunerite, a form of asbestos, in four places within a third of a mile from the proposed mining site.

Although his findings were confirmed by a lab at the University of Wisconsin Geology Department, Media Trackers pointed to conflicting results from a lab at the University of Minnesota Duluth in which grunerite was not found.

WDNR sciences bureau chief Jack Sullivan pointed out that the report included research from dozens of scientists and doesn’t take sides. He described the report as objective.

GTAC officials sent a strongly worded six page letter on January 8, to the WDNR in response to the agency’s request for additional clarification regarding the company’s bulk sampling activity. In the letter, GTAC officials accuse the agency of overstepping its authority. Seitz has complained that the WDNR has delayed the sampling process with its repeated requests for additional information.

Wisconsin Senator Bob Jauch, a mining opponent who represents the district where the mine would be located, told the Wisconsin State Journal that GTAC is using bullying tactics.

Jauch further noted that GTAC’s tough tone may backfire if the WDNR’s request for data isn’t met within new timelines. In the end, the agency may be forced to deny a final mining permit to GTAC.

An additional stumbling block for the proposed mine emerged late last year when the Army Corps of Engineers officially declined to work with the WDNR in creating a joint federal/state environmental impact statement for the GTAC site.

According to a December 23 letter responding to the WDNR’s request to create a joint environmental impact statement, the Corps declines to work with the WDNR “due to differences between the state and federal environmental requirements that would likely apply to the proposed project.”

A report from Wisconsin Public Radio described the corps refusal as a major setback for both GTAC and the WDNR.

“From a practical standpoint, it puts federal government in control of the regulatory process and makes the state process much more meaningless. It will probably lead to more complicated and lengthy litigation,” George Meyer told Wisconsin Public Radio. Meyer is former secretary of the WDNR and current director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

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