Eau Claire News 18 WQOW "Mine of Information" Part 1

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Eau Claire (WQOW) - The debate about a proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin always seems to come back to two things:  the impact on the economy vs. the environment.  As WQOW News 18 examines Gogebic Taconite's plans, we're hearing what supporters and opponents say they stand to gain or lose depending on the fate of that mine.

(This is the first story in a WQOW News 18 series called, "Mine of Information.")

What's in a name?

For Copper Falls in Ashland County, it's both a sought after mineral and a natural resource.

Frank Koehn fights to protect the natural waters and habitat of this region.

"It's water.  It all comes back to water.  We need that water to sustain life and that's what's at risk here is our water," says Koehn.

The DNR says mines can use water at more than 70 gallons per minute.

study by the Safe Drinking Water Foundation in Canada says at that rate surface and ground water levels can deplete quickly and also lead to chemicals and minerals from ore tailings leaching into the water supply.

"It's the high capacity wells.  It's the inability for any protection from that ground water being pulled up because of high capacity wells and it's certainly the waste," says Koehn.

Copper Falls is the perfect symbol for Wisconsin mining. 

Upstream is the past and we know where we've been. 

But downstream near the falls is the future and off the edge of the falls is the great unknown.

"I guess we figure after 50 years we'll try mining again.  I mean the ore is there," says Iron County Clerk Michael Saari.

Saari knows his city and county need work again, and a mine is his best hope to bring back their past success.

The ore was a steady vein of life, churning Iron County onward in the early 1900's.

"Look at Hurley and look at the area now.  What did mining do?  It was successful when the mines ran, but in the 60's when the mine closed, people left," says Koehn.

"A lot of families here, who have been here the whole time, someone in their family worked in the mine," says Saari.

Now all that's left of those strong mining roots are derelict deposits, leading to two different thoughts on what to do with a known deposit of ore under the Penokee Hills.

"Right now we're looking at the past to say this is what made us great, so let's start over again.  It's not going to work," says Koehn.

While others are hopeful that under a watchful eye, we can see success with a Wisconsin iron mine.

"I guess that's part of America.  You get to voice your opinion.  I personally don't agree with them, because I truly believe that between the state of Wisconsin, the EPA and the Army Corps that they can actually produce a mine that can produce the product and not pollute Iron County," says Saari.

A mine the size of a four mile pit, along a 20-mile vein of ore, some speculate will pollute the water no matter what government agency steps forward.

"To those people I ask, where?  Where has the Corps of Engineers ever stopped a mine?  Where has it happened?  Show me one of those, I haven't seen one," says Koehn.

The size and the scope of the mine here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin could leave a footprint.

It's those footprints that have created an ongoing conversation.

"We're kind of to the point where we've got the knowledge to do about anything we think we can do.  Probably the technology that would justify it, but we simply don't have the wisdom to say no," says Koehn.

On one side of the bridge water, on the other jobs.

"We need the jobs.  We want the jobs.  All the spin off jobs, it isn't just the jobs at the mine.  It isn't just the construction jobs, but we need the economic development," says Saari.

To that, the opponents of the mine wonder if money will make change or harm one of the state's richest resources.

"Somewhere along the line we've gotten ourselves legislatively convinced that water is just simply a commodity.  It's a commodity like anything else, to be bought and sold," says Koehn.

But the money speaks loudly.

"The ore is there.  You have a company that is willing to spend a billion and a half dollars in Iron County.  That's an amazing figure when you think that Iron County's total equalized valuation of the entire county is $920 million," says Saari.

And what the mine pulls out in profits the state and county get to tax, keeping 60-percent local and sending 40-percent to the state.

"If we had 1/10th of the money that's gone into this whole rhubarb that's going on down in Madison right now, put it into some sensible legislation that affects logging, affects all kind of activities up here, we'd probably be employing more people," says Koehn.

In fact, timber is what keeps Iron County in the black through its lumber exports, called stumpage.

"Our stumpage last year was like $2 million," says Saari.

Not enough to encourage growth in the local economy and still not promising all the financial answers with a potential mine.

"It's not everything that Iron County had hoped for, but I guess you have to compromise," says Saari.

A compromise coming in at $95,000 a year for Gogebic Taconite to lease the land alone, plus the tax earnings when the ore starts to pay off, a value not worth it in everyone's opinion.

"Those guys are absolutely convinced that the only way America gets strong, tough, lean and mean is if we become an industrial society again.  The way we do that is crank up the same old system that put us in this mess in the first place," says Koehn.

Two trains of thought, both trying to preserve something different for future generations.

"There's enough ore that they estimate for 100 years there would be jobs.  I don't know if that'll happen.  I guess 35 years from now they'll see if it's economically feasible," says Saari.

But is there enough of another resource?

"I do know there's not enough water to support that whole process in the way it's planned out," says Koehn.

Something opponents are prepared to fight against for a very long time.

"This could be one of those issues that some of us spend the rest of our lives with.  Just looking at the hills and trying to protect them and protect the water," says Koehn.

Water that flows through everyone's life in the Northwoods.

"I fished Trout out of Tyler Forks when I was a kid.  It's a beautiful stream and goes all the way, it ends up eventually in Lake Superior," says Saari.

"I watched the otters and it was a peaceful, wonderful place to be.  I always knew that water went somewhere.  That was my water and it ended up in the ocean," says Koehn.

But even if the two sides do see beyond their differences, what is the best direction for Northern Wisconsin?

"I have faith in the federal government and the state government that they will do the best they can to keep it from polluting Northern Wisconsin. I believe that.  I have to, I work for the government, that's what I do," says Saari.

While others are optimistic a sensible solution will present itself.

"There's all this unrest that's going on.  I think out of all this unrest, something really good is going to happen too.  Because people are thinking," says Koehn.

To give you an idea of the size of the proposed mine, Iron County is 800 square miles and the site is a four-mile parcel in the Southwestern corner of the county.

Gogebic Taconite estimates 700 sustainable jobs at the mine, which is seven times the number of jobs at the counties current largest employer.

What have we learned from our mining past and specifically the Flambeau Mine in Ladysmith?

Wednesday night, we'll dig deeper to discover how this mine changed a community.