A proposed open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Range in northern Wisconsin has sparked debate over the state’s mining law.
Gogebic Taconite, a mining company based in Hurley, Wis., first proposed the mine in 2011. As the application process continues, debate over whether the mine should open increases. Supporters hope the mine will bring jobs to the state; critics fear the mine’s potential impact on the environment.
“We took a strong stand in opposition to the mine in 2011 almost as soon as we heard about it,” said Dave Blouin, chair of the political committee of the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club based in Madison. Blouin estimated the first phase of the project would produce up to 1 billion tons of waste rock containing harmful sulfides.
The mine would be nearly 4.5 miles long and extend into Iron and Ashland counties, 18 miles south of Lake Superior. In Iron County, the issue has become political. Candidates who oppose the mine are running for 10 of the 15 seats on the non-partisan County Board in the upcoming general election in April.
State lawmakers passed a bill in 2013 that changed the state’s mining law to be more favorable to mining companies after the project was proposed. The new law applies only to iron mining and is intended to streamline the permitting process, said Ann Coakley, director of the bureau of Waste and Materials Management in the Department of Natural Resources. Supporters say that the new law will ease the process and shorten the time to get a mining permit. Opponents of the new law claim that it stripped the state’s mining law of environmental protections.
“Wisconsin had the best mining law in the country,” said Vic Ouimette of Mercer, one of the candidates running for the Iron County Board. “The legislature basically scrapped the mining law.”
Bob Seitz, director of external affairs for Gogebic Taconite, said that with $30 million invested in the project, the company will put a great deal of effort in keeping the mine safe.
“Mining can be done in an environmentally friendly way,” said Seitz. “The burden is on us to do this in an environmentally sound way.”
Gogebic Taconite has received permission to begin exploratory drilling at the site. It plans to drill 23 more holes, said Seitz. The company still awaits approval from the state agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to begin mining. That decision could be made within three years said, Ouimette.