STATE JOURNAL SPECIAL REPORT | PART 3 OF 3
RON SEELY | firstname.lastname@example.org 608-252-6131 Tuesday, October 11, 2011
MELLEN — If Gogebic Taconite is allowed to build its 4 1/2-mile-long open-pit iron mine on the crest of a forested ridge above this community, a landscape that is very much a part of the region's life and lore would be changed forever.
The thick stands of pine, oak and hemlock running down the north face of the ridge would be replaced by a lake — the long, narrow mine pit filled with water and designed with sloped sides to provide a home for fish and plants.
But that lake will be a long time coming — 40 years or more. In the meantime, an open mining pit will be visible from many places below the ridge. And the pit won't be the only change. Also on the site will be the enormous plant where the ore is processed into taconite pellets.
The changed landscape is but one nagging worry for local residents, most of whom are eager to support the mine but anxious for assurances that the place where they live will not be harmed.
If Gogebic does move forward with its plan to seek permits to build the mine, the state will have to consider numerous environmental issues.
Possible pollution of streams and lakes as well as the groundwater in the area tops the list of concerns. Such mines produce sulfate, a compound that occurs naturally in rock but when freed by mining interacts with bacteria in sediment in rivers and lakes to create a pollutant called sulfide.
Other environmental worries include the possible drawdown of water that supplies both public and private wells, noise from blasting and other industrial activity at the mine, and loss of wetlands.
"What good is 700 jobs if we don't have water?" Mellen Mayor Joe Barabe asked at a meeting with legislators this fall.
Pete Ellias, a member of the Mellen City Council, said that even with the prospect of all those jobs, he wants Gogebic Taconite to do everything necessary to protect the region's clean water and air. "I want it done right," Ellias said.
Many in the small city struggle to balance the promise of jobs with the potential for environmental damage.
Jean Waddle runs Penokee Mountain Deli on Mellen's main street and said she barely makes a living. She would welcome the increased business that the mine would bring her small restaurant but understands why people are worried about their water and about the green ridges above the town being stripped of their trees.
"It's beautiful, but you can only look at trees for so long," Waddle said. "I just think the concern for most people around here is that it be done responsibly."
Bill Williams, president of Gogebic, said modern mining practices allow such a mine to be built without polluting.
"Anything we do up here," Williams said while walking the mine site recently, "will never affect the water. Wells should not be affected."
There are plenty of skeptics. Wisconsin's John Muir chapter of the Sierra Club just voted to oppose the project because of "unacceptable risks" to the Bad River watershed.
But Williams said the geology of the region in Wisconsin helps protect the watery area just south of the ridge that would be mined, home to a number of lakes and to pristine trout streams such as Tyler Forks and Ballou Creek. He said the ridge itself with its geology of hard rocks such as granite serves almost like a dam to keep pollutants from escaping.
"This rock is tight," Williams said.
In addition, Williams said, the mine will use a "closed loop" water system that would be designed to keep water from escaping the site through recycling.
As for wastes from the mine and from ore processing, Williams said the material would be stored using a new method that helps lessen the threat of runoff and water pollution.
The new approach is called "dry stacking" because water is removed from the waste, called tailings, and the dry material is mounded, covered with soil, and planted with trees and other vegetation. The result, Williams said, is very little runoff, including runoff of pollutants.
Williams said this approach also would solve a concern often heard in Mellen and elsewhere about the proposed mine – the potential change in the landscape because of the deep mining pit and the large and unsightly piles of waste that will result.
Williams said restoration, which is required by state mining laws, will be made easier through dry stacking because the dry wastes can be more easily moved and shaped into natural-looking hills.
The pit itself will be reclaimed as a lake, Williams said. It won't be the first reclaimed mining pit in the state. In Jackson County, near Black River Falls, an open-pit iron mine was operated by Inland Steel between 1969 and 1986 and has been restored as a very popular lake and county park.
Williams said the pit will be dug with the eventual contours of the lake in mind. The sides will be shaped so that they are sloped to make for a safer shoreline and productive growing zones for both plants and fish.
Will water disappear?
For many in the communities around the proposed mine, water quantity is as much of a concern as water quality.
How, many ask, can the mining company dig a 1,000-foot pit, keep draining it of water in a water-rich area, and not affect water levels of area wells or other water resources? The mine would be in the heart of the Bad River watershed, a complex hydrological system that feeds artesian springs as far away as Ashland on the shoreline of Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay. The watershed is rich with waterfall-filled rivers, wetlands and nearly pristine lakes.
Gogebic has released no numbers on how much water it will use to run the mine or how much water it will have to replace to replenish groundwater supplies depleted by dewatering of the mining pit.
But Pete Rasmussen, with the Penokee Hills Education Project, a group that is fighting the mine, said most taconite mines use up to 1,900 gallons of water per ton of ore for everything from watering down roads to processing. The Gogebic mine would produce about 8 million tons of ore a year — which could use as much as 15.2 billion gallons of water a year.
Where will it come from?
Williams said the water will be taken from groundwater supplies, but he added that water will be recycled so little water will be lost.
Even so, Barabe, Mellen's mayor, wants assurances from the mining company that wells in his community and elsewhere won't be affected. He suggests a fund — in addition to legally required state mining impact dollars — into which the company would pay to compensate anyone whose well is damaged.
"Mellen's water runs right off that hill," Barabe said. "There needs to be a mechanism for protecting Mellen."
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