The Science of Sustainability

Iron Mining Controversy in Northern Wisconsin

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Nestled among the trees, streams and undeveloped land in Northern Wisconsin rests an environmental, societal and political challenge. The pristine area, with its proximity to Lake Superior, the largest fresh-water lake in the world, is why its residents choose to live there, but the area is also home to 25 percent of the country’s iron ore reserves, a commercial value of $200 billion.

Pete Rasmussen and Jamey Francis embody the conflict residents in the area face. Both are from the area. Both went away for college. Both moved back to enjoy what the area had to offer. However, the former doesn’t want to risk the change an iron ore mine could bring, the latter feels the mine would staunch the change that’s already occurred.

The four and a half mile stretch of land in question straddles Ashland and Iron Counties in an area colloquially called Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Since 1965, Iron County, an area where a history of mining is celebrated through streets signs and family history, has seen its population decline by 80 percent. Some, like Francis, see the proposed mine and the thousands of jobs it offers either directly or indirectly as a chance to save the county with the one of the highest unemployment rates (8.6% in September) in the state.

“There’s not going to be any opportunity that I can see in the near future other than this mine,” said Francis, an apparel salesman and city councilman in the town of Hurley. “This is an economic game changer.”

The company proposing to develop the mine, Gogebic Taconite (GTAC), has sponsored community events for most of the last year and held open houses throughout the region in an effort to drum up support. GTAC has also lobbied Wisconsin lawmakers to change state law to treat ferrous mining separately from sulfide mining as Michigan and Minnesota do. Iron ore mining uses water and magnets to extract the iron while sulfide mining uses chemicals to remove the deposits.

Among the legislative changes the company wants is a finite time line for the Department of Natural Resources to approve or deny a permit request. GTAC is also interested in being granted the ability to mitigate damages to currently protected wetlands by creating 1 ½ acres of wetland for every acre damaged in the process.

Critics fear the legislation is code for simply ramming through a strip mine without concern to the environment.

“The possibility of poisoning the water for future generations isn’t worth it to me,” said Rasmussen, a freelance photographer, web developer and carpenter in the area. “We’ve known it would be a struggle up here to get by, and it is for a lot of folks and they have to maybe take a couple of jobs. But it’s worth it. It’s part of the price you pay to live in such a beautiful place. And we’re here to protect that.”

The Republican-led legislature is moving forward with legislation to change Wisconsin’s mining laws in order to “get people back to work.” The head of the State Assembly, Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R), says there’s “no more important an issue” facing lawmakers in the next few months.

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Category: Engineering, Environment

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Adam Schrager

About the Author ()

Adam Schrager is a Producer/Reporter at Wisconsin Public Television. He has covered politics for nearly 20 years in Denver, Colorado, La Crosse, Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Schrager has won more than twenty Emmy awards. Schrager is the author of the book, The Principled Politician and co-author of The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care). Schrager has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University. He lives in Madison with his wife, Cathy, and their daughter, Harper, and their son, Clark.
  • danielle

    let me get this straight. a corporation wants to take a valuable resource for huge financial gain while putting the health/lives at risk of thousands of people?

    • Jim

      Yeah. God forbid, a company come in, create thousands and thousands of jobs, and pump millions and millions of dollars into the areas economy. How awful.

      • Tom

        I heard it may destroy the watershed and thus harm Lake Superior, irrevocably,ruining the areas adjacent for the local people and tourism. Is that true?

        • Graham Svoboda

          Mining has come along way since the days where we actually destroyed the land. This mine will be heavily regulated to ensure that the natural resources are being replenished and not harm Lake Superior. By opening this mine, it will help create jobs in America and make the US not so dependant on Chinese steel, which we currently use alot of.

          • guest

            wisconsin has some of the strictest environmental regs in the US….. you really think that once this gets going the state and feds are just going to turn around and let this company do whatever it wants…. first the bill needs to get past….. then they have to get the permitting and prove everything will be done right….. and follow their proposed plan. with how many eyes will be on them there will be no funny business

          • rayray

            y cant they just stop mining and find new ways to run cars and new ways to power house it suck.

  • Bob

    only those of little minds think that this is about evil corporations. It's about jobs. pure and simple.

  • Justin

    There is plenty of peer reviewed scientific research out there indicating that mining does not create local jobs.

    Mountaintop Removal and Job Creation: Exploring the Relationship Using Spatial Regression
    Brad R. Woods a & Jason S. Gordon
    Office for Research Protections, The Pennsylvania State University
    Department of Forestry, Mississippi State University

    Mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia: The context of poverty, the dearth of employment, and the outrage of residents in the West Virginia coalfields.
    Woods, B. R., and A. L. Meyer. 2006.
    Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, Louisville,
    KY.

  • Justin

    Oh, by the way. I am a former employee of a mineral extraction company. All work is subcontracted from out of state.

  • Urb

    For those who support the mine. Visit the open pit mines in Minnesota. We have heard time and time again from mining companies that they will not destroy the environment. Bullcrap. All they care about is lining their pockets. The damage these guys will do to Wisconsin will make the BP oil spill in the gulf look like a puddle of piss from one drunk. How will they keep the ground water from Lake Superior. The open pit mine I seen in minnesota is 2 miles wide,six miles long and 500 feet deep. When the mine shut down due to hard time the entire pit filled with water. The same will happen in Wisconsin. They will have to constantly pump the open pit. Where will the water go. Down the Bad River to Lake Superior. A few hundred jobs worth destroying the great lakes. Its not to me. Just so the Koch Boys can rape our state of our resources to add to the billions they already have.

    • ulfrob

      are u nuts? i lived in northern minnesota for 30 years and i want to tell you that the mines do fill up and are perfectly clear beautiful water that are home of LAKE TROUT and many other fish species. our well water was perfect. and our home was located less than 3 miles from one mine pit 7 miles from another and less than 4 miles from another….the wild life up there is thriving. and the water….PURE. get a grip.

      • rayray

        yeah that is bullshit they should go some were else and not by you ever thing was fine till they came.

  • Emogirl542

    How will it effect the environment

  • Machpro

    As with everything balance is key! The history of the iron mining example at Iron Ridge in Dodge county helped put Milwaukee as the machine shop of the world. Wheat was at the time a large boom. The machine shops used that iron to make milling equipment locally and later nation wide. Think about some industries such as farming, windfarms, fresh water industry,and a myriad of others that are now moving very well. These industries could repeat the last economic boom. The mining must be done right. Period. Bad business is not worth the venture. But if done correctly the industry in the area has enough smarts to make the local material to use and recirculate the monies locally as well.
    I do understand the hesitation of people as to the risks, and suggest them to research it. Please do not just take one groups comments, or political views. read the 1st sentance again!
    I am an owner of a manufacturing firm.

  • Robert Clegg

    Take a look at the Powder River Basin in Wyoming where they mine millions of tons of low sulfur coal. Reclaimed land after digs yield 2x the prior levels of flora and fauna.

  • Kguns146

    There will always be exceptions to the rule, like Powder Basin. This is a crime against future generations.

  • Karen East5

    Northern Wisconsin has been a place where folks from other areas come and exploit. There appears to be an attitude that says that time stands still when outsiders are absent and the area comes alive only when outsiders are present. The scars in the earth in Minnesota's iron range are a profound example of what happens when iron ore is extracted. Many of us who live in northern Wisconsin do so because of the environment. I would rather have tourists than mines.

  • Stella

    My grandfather died from miner's consumption working in the iron ore mines in Iron County. I never knew him. Read Justin's comments below…mining DOES NOT create many, if any, local jobs…and the ones it does create are the ones in which the employees are used up and spit out. Don't be short-term foolish at the expense of long-term damage and destruction. Don't let wealthy mining interests come in and exploit the beauty of your area on a bunch of worthless promises. As a child, I saw those open pits left in the Iron County forest behind my grandmother's home. Each year they were larger and larger as soil eroded and fell in. There were no pristine waters and no trout in those gaping holes. Don't believe lies.

  • rayray

    Well if they do that lake Superior will be filled with gas oil and other chemicals so they shouldn't do it.

  • rayray

    all of are land will be ripped apart for oil gas and other things.

  • dig baby dig

    You people up there need jobs….take everyone on wellfare and foodstamps and force them to work in the mine…

    • alex

      you people??? Who do you think you are…ignorant as hell!

  • cleanwater

    a great idea would be to build a pipeline, and send all wastewater to lake mendota.

  • Brian

    I see that all the stories call this area "pristine wilderness". Iron has been mined here for over a hundred years. They also claim it is "on the shore of Lake Superior". The iron range is 10 miles inland.

  • http://thisone Michael C. Compton

    is this the same water that was polluted for the last 100 years by the same Band of Indians that is now opposing jobs? I lived there . I saw the toilet paper and feces and garbage that daily flowed down this so called "pristine " water. Walleyes hung from trees , rotten walleyes from spearing , discarded along river banks , not a deer in sight for years. Rape the land , but scream fowl when a chance for economical growth is in sight. Mining probaly will improve the water quality and land quality , if Western mining practices are used.

    • Concerned Wisconsinite

      You're right!

      How horrible, the biodegradeable toilet paper! And Lord! The fish! That, the fecal matter, as well as the garbage which you see every which way you look while traveling down the highway are all detrmental to the air and water. There's no way anyone could clean that up to help restore quality! I'm sure the presence of sulfides in both the target iron formation and the overlying rock which would need to be removed in order to get the iron-bearing rocks will improve the quality of the water and air as these sulfides oxidize and change the pH of the water which will affect all rivers and streams in the area. This will surely increase the fish population as well as the many microorganisms that the wetlands possess. The asbestos-form mineral which was discovered at one of GTac's sampling sites will definitely be healthful for the folks who inhabit the area.

      And, again, right you are. Gogebic Taconite will do a mighty fine utilizing Western mining practices, just as their people have before. Bill Williams, GTac president did a great job overseeing a mining operation in Spain where he is now facing a charges for the contamination of local groundwater because of his open-pit mine.

      For the record, the Bad River Band, along with several bands, have federal rights to their land which would be violated for a boom/bust operation. Maybe the Gogebic Taconite executives as well as other supporters of the mine could cash out some more money to help with "economic growth" as they previously donated $15 million to Governor Walker and Republican legislators in order to ensure the mine's existence.

      I would think that as a former inhabitant of Northern Wisconsin you would appreciate the beauty of the land. I would also think that you would be cognizant of the fact that Ashland County has the best air quality in all of Wisconsin and Lake Superior, which would receive the contaminated runoff from the open-pit operation, is by far the cleanest of the Great Lakes.

      Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, and if you want to live in your own little fantasy world where scientific evidence is irrelevent, that's fine by me. But before you form an opinion about such a topic and then speak about it, do your research. At least your problem is how uneducated about the proposed mine. GTac and Governor Walker are educated on the effects of the mine, but are too ignorant and mercanary to care.

      I will now step down from my soap box.

  • Smythe258

    That is a complicated one. http://www.senmin.co.za

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  • TERRIOST

    HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAH