Nuts and Bolts of the Controversial Mining Bill
Milwaukee Riverkeeper supported the Wisconsinites who opposed the Republican-backed mining bill in Madison last week. We are concerned over the relaxed environmental protections and shortened timeline for the DNR decision making process that the proposed bill would bring. With such a public uproar over it, the mining bill is clearly a big and complicated issue. To help clear up some questions about the bill, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently published an informative Question & Answer to help readers dig deeper into the debate.
[excerpted from the Milwaukee Jounal Sentinel]
by Lee Bergquist
Q. What kind of mining project is being proposed?
A. So far, nothing's been formally proposed. This has frustrated some lawmakers, who are being asked to rewrite mining laws largely for a single company that won't detail a formal proposal with the state until a new law passes.
Gogebic has provided some details for a $1.5 billion open pit mine, however.
The first phase would operate for an estimated 35 years. The pit, plunging 1,000 feet deep, would cover 4 miles in Ashland and Iron counties.
The ore deposit dips steeply into the rock - not in wide bands - and contains 20% to 30% magnetite, according to the DNR.
Gogebic also would construct an industrial-size facility that would break down the rock and concentrate the ore into pellets used to make steel.
Q. What about jobs?
A. Gogebic said the mine would employ about 700 workers. The average pay and benefits would total $82,984, according to the company. Its consultant, Northstar Economics Inc., estimated that the multiplier effect from the mine would stimulate a total of 2,834 long-term jobs.
Backers say the mine would help suppliers and manufacturing elsewhere in the state, such Milwaukee's mining equipment sector.
Q. What does Gogebic want from lawmakers?
A. First, any bill that becomes law would apply to future companies that want to mine iron in the state.
Gogebic initially expressed concern that existing law is so open-ended that it might be forced to wait a decade for the DNR to review a permit.
The Republican bill would give the DNR 420 days for review. It would also push back a quasi-judicial process known as a contested case hearing - where the public can challenge the claims of a potential operator - until after the DNR decides the case.
A Democratic bill from Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) gives the DNR more time - at least two years. The hearing would occur before a final decision. Supporters say it keeps the burden on the company to defend the data in its application.
Q. Aren't there other agencies that will have a say in whether a mine will be built?
A. Yes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has said it may need more time to evaluate Gogebic's project than the Republican bill allows. Also, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the responsibility to enforce water quality standards set by the Bad River band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which is opposed to the mine. The tribe is downstream in the Bad River watershed.
Q. Besides timelines, what are the environmental issues?
A. The changes pushed by mine backers are meant to give a mining company more flexibility to operate.
One provision would drop certain conditions that an applicant would have to satisfy before it gets the go-ahead to start mining in sulfide ore bodies. The conditions are so demanding that they are referred to as the state's "mining moratorium law."
Sulfide deposits in rock where Gogebic wants to mine could potentially harm local waters.
Also, the pro-mining bill would allow certain lake beds to be filled. Wetlands could be destroyed. There are exemptions from existing environmental regulations, and language is more subjective.
The Democratic bill keeps existing environmental regulations in place.
The Republican bill is "clearly intended to require the DNR to be more permissive when it comes to authorizing private companies to adversely impact our wetlands and navigable waters," Cullen said in a statement.
But mine backers dispute this.
"We've heard a lot about rolling back standards - and that's just not true," said Scott Manley, vice president of government relations at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
No numerical environmental standards for various pollutants are changed. Also, new wetlands have to be created elsewhere if existing wetlands are destroyed.
And it might sound like a mine operator could fill in an entire lake, but Manley said it won't because other language would essentially forbid it.
Instead, the changes would allow a mine to dump rock on a small body of water like a puddle that in existing state law has the same protections as a lake with cottages around it, he said.
Q. Why the attention to sulfides?
A. Sulfide deposits can react with air and water to cause acid mine drainage, damaging surface and groundwater, if tainted water is not contained or neutralized.
Lawrence University geologist Marcia Bjornerud used geological data and rock samples from the Gogebic site, and nearby, to calculate how much waste rock would hold sulfides.
In a 2012 report for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, she concluded that the "potential for acid drainage from an open pit mine is a serious concern."
But Tim Myers, chief engineer with Gogebic, said that Bjornerud miscalculated: Only a small amount of sulfide rock would come into play. The company would have to engineer protections to satisfy regulators.
Q. Isn't a pro-mining mining bill assured because Republicans control the Legislature and the governor's office?
A. The focus will be on the Senate, where Republicans have an 18-15 majority. Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) is already on record as opposing it. Also, several Republicans are privately raising concerns about the extent of environmental changes. Republican leaders say their bill will have to be modified, but how much is a big unknown.
Q. Who's behind Gogebic?
A. The company is a subsidiary of privately held Cline Resource and Development, which is headed by Christopher Cline, who lives in South Florida. The company owns coal mines in Appalachia and Southern Illinois.
Cline has been a big political contributor in the state, including donations of $8,000 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2010, and has given to other elected officials, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Q. Does Gogebic own the property?
A. No. The surface and mineral rights are owned by LaPointe Iron Co., of Hibbing, Minn., and RGGS Land & Minerals Ltd. of Houston. La Pointe, RGGS and others have been marketing the mineral rights for years.
Q. Are there other such mines in the state?
A. No. The last iron ore mine in Wisconsin was in Jackson County. It operated from 1968 to 1982. The open pit mine was reclaimed and is now Lake Wazee, the deepest inland lake in Wisconsin at 355 feet.
Q. Where is iron ore mined?
A. Virtually all of the nation's iron ore is mined in northeastern Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. If Gogebic is built, it would represent a new third source of iron ore.
Q . Why the interest in this specific site?
A. It contains proven iron ore reserves - the largest in Wisconsin.
Gogebic has access to proprietary core samples held by the landowners. Thus, the company knows better than anyone about the potential of the ore deposit.
In 1978, economic geologist Ralph W. Marsden estimated the entire Gogebic range contains 2.2 billion metric tons of iron ore reserves in a report to the U.S. Bureau of Mines.
Q. With other mines already operating, and some of the workers currently laid off, why would Gogebic want to get into the business?
A. Iron mining is highly cyclical, but Gogebic officials believe that over the life of the mine, the steel industry will need a new supply of iron. Also, with new technology and efficiencies, a new mine will have a competitive advantage over others.
Also, read two recent op-eds in the Jounal Sentinel about the mining bill as part of the newspaper's Purple Wisconsin Project.