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A Bad Idea That Won’t Go Away

BY WILL STAHL

Only two decades ago an unprecedented threat brought about an unprecedented law. The proposed Crandon mine rallied citizens across the state against the project that would have been an underground mine in search of copper, zinc and gold. The digging itself would have been little visible from the surface, but the accumulated waste rock and tailings would have buried the area of 300 football fields ninety feet deep, this in an area historically wetlands.

This waste would have been heavy with sulfide minerals and the whole vast pile would have needed to not leak forever or the nearby Wolf River, one of our states most beloved streams, would have been despoiled for the humanly foreseeable future.

I didn’t do much to help that effort, aside from sign petitions and wear a NO CRANDON MINE bumper sticker on my car.

At one state Conservation Congress I did stand up and say I had kayaked the Cheat River in West Virginia, and sulfide-mining waste had utterly sterilized that river of all living things, no fish, plants or microbes. It had stained streambed rocks a bright orange color. Locals told us that wild animals wouldn’t drink it. It was near the end of that very long meeting and not many were left.

Wisconsin citizens rose in protest, as few trusted the mining companies to keep their promises, and they challenged the state’s ability to control its own commons––the resources of air and water upon which we all depend.

It was reasonably proposed that a law stating that the proponents of any sulfide metallic mine project be required to demonstrate by example of a similar mine elsewhere that the new mine would be able to be built, depleted and closed for ten years without causing any contaminating effects on the surrounding land, air and water. That law was passed and it was signed by a Republican governor, Tommy Thompson.

The one mine approved under this law, on the Flambeau River, has not provided reassurance, as some years after its close, it continues to leak toxins into a creek feeding the river.

Now the state is being asked to accept a mine of vastly greater size and impact in a place much farther from and much less known to the citizens of our most populous areas. This is of course the Penokee Hills iron mine proposed by an out-of-state corporation that calls itself “G-Tac.” That compression signifies “Gogebic Taconite,” a front company for a Florida-based privately owned mining corporation that has never mined iron anywhere and whose record of coal mining activity is not encouraging in regard to safety and environmental practices.

The mine would be in its first phase four and a half miles long, nearly a thousand feet deep and somewhere between half a mile and a mile wide. It would seek iron in an ancient layer of rock driven sixty degrees off horizontal by the forces of our restless Earth.

The company arrived spreading words of joy––they would be taking up a long dormant mining claim and bring prosperity to a declining region. They would insist on no changes to Wisconsin mining law, now reviled by some Conservative legislators as the most restrictive in the nation, as if that were a bad thing.

This particular part of the state has a long history of mining and of prosperity when mining was in progress. When this company arrives saying they can bring back the wealth and continue the community, the local people reflect on their immediate ancestors who went down into the mines that provided the iron for the North to win the Civil War, to build the railroads across the West and to launch the automotive age.

But this new mine will be nothing like the mines of those days, which tunneled after rich veins of iron down under the hills. This is a poor vein of iron, large but extending deep into the Earth at a sharp angle and buried under millions of tons of over-burdening rock, which all must be removed and set aside and which is impregnated with sulfide minerals such as iron pyrite, that exposed to air and water will leach out acid runoff to the streams and groundwater of that whole region.

The descendants of the old deep miners have seen their local population shrink and prosperity decline, and what is left is dependent on tourism at the end of roads that have passed many other attractions. They say they want the mine so their children and their grandchildren can stay in the area. Anyone can empathize with that feeling, especially those who value living near to their close relatives.

What they must understand is that if the mine comes in, the place they want their children to remain will no longer be the place it is. No mine like this has ever been built in Wisconsin, and its own physical footprint will be huge and the effects beyond that site will be catastrophic over the long term.

Yes, some local people would get good jobs at the mine, but many of the best-paid workers would come from elsewhere. A boomtown phase would ensue with new businesses and infrastructure emerging like mushrooms. But there’s no way of knowing whether it would last ten years or a hundred. A sudden drop in iron ore prices could shut the whole thing overnight. The money never stays around.

The waste rock, the overburden that must be dug away, is full of sulfide minerals, and it must be piled somewhere, but the ore cannot be exploited economically if great care is taken with that massive amount of rock. And under existing Wisconsin mining law, that would be impossible.

The new Wisconsin law on “ferrous” mining allows about anything the G-Tac mining company might want to do, and one of its sponsors, Rep. Senator Tom Tiffany crowed that the mine could not be challenged in court because the law was written to expect the mine to do damage. No surprise that the mining company had a hand in writing the law.

If the mine is built as planned, the environmental consequences will be catastrophic and irreversible. The piled up waste rock, which under the new law can be put almost anywhere, will leach sulfuric acid into the Bad River headwaters and that will destroy the Kekogon Sloughs which provide the wild rice central to the cooking culture of the Ojibwa of the Bad River reservation.

The toxic drainage could possibly reach ground water rendering it useless or in some places, the mine’s huge draw of water from high capacity wells might run dry the wells of neighbors up to several miles away.

No one knows what the impact will be from road building and road use, from traffic in places not used to it, from hundreds of new people flooding into communities. When people speak of being able to stay “here,” do they understand that “here” will never again be the same place they love?

By the time you read this, the election will be over, but no matter who wins what, this new ferrous mining law is still the law of the state. The federal government has two or three different barriers it might put in the way of this mine, but the state of Wisconsin has left the road wide open.

The Penokee Range is not exactly majestic, but its hills are the stubby remnants of once-great mountains, formed in the turbulent geologic history of the region’s distant past. They have a vein of low-grade iron ore, but they also have waterfalls and vistas and intimate woodland scenery that could be there forever and undisturbed. And they are the place from which the waters gather that feed the streams and wells around.

It is the archetypal environmental issue: do we exploit a resource to gain wealth, knowing we will leave poison and destruction behind, or do we forego that to have the land as it is, as it has been?

This one doesn’t have to happen. When the time comes, let the right people know how you feel.

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