No fire sale for North Woods mine

David J. Mladenoff: No fire sale for North Woods mine Editorial 06/04/11

The proposed metallic mining law now being considered in the Wisconsin Legislature would circumvent Department of Natural Resources permitting processes and exempt a single industry from environmental protections. 

This is particularly ill-advised because of the environmental and societal risks, and because it is not necessary. 

The proposed Gogebic Taconite mine on the Gogebic/Penokee Range of Iron and Ashland counties is not a factory that could just as well go to Mississippi without state incentives. The company put this in motion several years ago, with knowledge of existing laws and procedures, because it is such a valuable venture. 

A mine must go where the minerals are. This iron deposit is one of the largest remaining unmined deposits of commercial grade that exists. There is no reason to exempt it from current permitting processes and protections. 

To carry out this bad faith effort on the state citizens will not speed the mine development. Instead, it will ensure the most adversarial atmosphere possible and years of court action. 

I am a native of Hurley on the Gogebic Range. Until the mid-1960s when the original mines closed, my father and uncles were miners, and my grandfathers before them. When the companies left in the 1960s, they took thousands of jobs and left nothing but poverty. 

Passing through Hurley today is a painful sight. The area has been in decline for 40 years. Before reasonable laws existed, mining companies took wealth and left poverty. 

Mining is by definition extraction, and it is finite. The Gogebic Taconite mine is estimated to have a life of 30 years, and then the commercially viable ore will be gone. 

The boom-and-bust cycle will repeat itself. It is not an industry that can be sustained. There is no reason to give away this valuable commodity in a fire sale along with our more valuable north woods environment.

The Gogebic Taconite investors have leased rights to mine a huge deposit that has been known and retained in mining company ownership for nearly 50 years after the original mines closed. The lands and mineral ownership have been held by some of these original companies, while its value increased along with the poverty above the ground. 

Now these long-time land and mineral owners will profit again, along with Gogebic Taconite, earning more millions of dollars. For all this time, no concern was shown to the families that lost their economic lifeline, with no alternative jobs available. The largest remaining "payroll" in that area has been Social Security. 

The proposed mine would create a two-mile long by one-quarter-mile wide excavation, and nearly as deep. 

If you want to know what this is like, enter "Mesabi Range, MN", in Google Maps or Google Earth. The huge scars are visible from space. Then enter "Penokee Range, WI", and you will see the miles long ridge, entirely covered in forest. 

The Bad River and town of Mellen are in the center of this section of the range. The mine will straddle the Bad River, near the top of its watershed. Then follow the Bad River on your map down to Lake Superior. This is the Kakagon Sloughs at Lake Superior, the largest pristine estuary and wild rice beds on the lake, and note, adjacent to the Apostle Islands. 

Taconite processing also uses immense amounts of water and produces wastewater of huge proportions that will flow downhill.

It would be tragic if we allowed the old patterns to repeat themselves. I cannot deny categorically jobs for the citizens of my sad hometown. But if it is to happen, it is critical that it be done under existing sound processes.

Mladenoff, of Madison, is a professor of forest biology at UW-Madison.