Pondering the potential for iron mining up north (Part 1/3)

State has strict standards

Staff Writer

Published: Tuesday, December 28, 2010 11:13 PM CST (Ashland Daily Press)

Wisconsin’s major iron mining area during the late 1800s to mid-1960s centered on the Gogebic Iron Range, which produced about 325 million tons of direct-shipping ore in its heyday. Now, northwestern Wisconsin may become the site of the state’s first metallic mining operation in more than a decade and the first iron mine in 50 years. The discussion over the potential for iron mining gained renewed interest this year when the Cline Group, a Florida-based mining company, began examing the Gogebic Range. 

The Daily Press first reported in August that the Cline Group purchased an option to lease mineral rights spanning more than 20 miles from Mellen to Upson in Ashland and Iron counties from LaPointe Mining Company of Hibbing, Minn. Gogebic Taconite, an affiliate of the Cline Group, was created and representatives have been visiting local governments to gauge interest in the potential iron mine operation. J. Matthew Fifield is a representative of Gogebic Taconite. 

“We will staff up here in the region and have people on the ground talking with stakeholders and figuring out what the objections and core issues are,” Fifield said. “I’ve found people to be cautiously optimistic. I think that people recognize the economic impact this could bring to the area without knowing a lot of the specifics. I also think that they are equally cognizant of the potential for environmental disturbance.” 

Gogebic Taconite is in the preliminary stages of evaluating the mineral makeup of the deposits and what steps need to be taken with the State of Wisconsin to permit a mine. 

‘World-class’ deposit 

Fifield says the deposit is of national significance. A 2007 report by the U.S. Geological Survey ranked the Gogebic Iron Range as third in the nation for natural ore production. The report also states it’s one of the largest undeveloped taconite resources in the country. 

“The magnitude of this deposit is world-class. It would take maybe as much as 100 years of continuous mining production and activity in the area before you exhaust the deposit to a depth of 250 to 300 feet,” Fifield said. 

Tom Fitz, an associate professor of geoscience with Northland College in Ashland, said the  proposed mining area lies in the Ironwood Iron-Formation. 

“(The formation) is about 125 kilometers long and 400 feet thick. It’s pretty much massive magnetite and quartz. So there’s a lot of iron,” Fitz said. “It could potentially be a big mine.” 

The Penokee range is heavily concentrated with magnetic ore. 

“Which means that it is easily extracted. You just crush up the rock, and then you can actually pick up the magnetite with a magnet. The extraction process is fairly easy here, so there’s still a lot in the ground. It was economics that halted mining — not the end of reserves.” 

Yet, Fitz noted there is a limit on what can be extracted through surface mining techniques. Fifield agreed. 

“From a practical standpoint, if you want to mine a set amount of tons in iron ranges in Mesabi (Minnesota’s Iron Range), you have a huge and wide pit that would be relatively shallow,” Fifield said. “Here, where it’s more steeply dipping, you are narrower and deeper.” 

Fifield said they’re considering an open-pit mine around 4 miles long by a quarter mile wide. 

“We estimate that it would take 35 years to go through the economic ore at today’s prevailing ore prices to excavate that area. At the end of that, you would most likely close that pit and open up another one adjacent to it,” Fifield said. 

Permitting process 

Before Gogebic Taconite could break ground, they would have to navigate the state’s permitting process regarding mining. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) divvies up mining into two categories: non-metallic and metallic mining. Philip Fauble is the DNR’s mining coordinator. 

“Metallic mining in the State of Wisconsin is very strictly regulated. In fact, I will say that we have some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the country,” Fauble said. 

The first step in the permitting process would require the company to file a “notice of intent.” 

“With that notice of intent, they basically say, ‘Here’s the ore body we found. Here’s how big it is and here’s how we’re going to monitor the site in order to gather up information to support the mining permit,’” Fauble said. 

Fauble said they require a lot of advanced environmental information up front to establish a baseline. 

“Are there endangered species out there? What’s the water flow? All of those sorts of questions,” Fauble said. 

After that, the DNR requires a scope of study detailing how the mine will go about the project. Once that occurs, the department holds a public hearing to get an idea of what may concern area residents regarding the project. Then, the mining company submits the study to the DNR along with a mine permit application. Following that, Fauble said a number of plans, reports and permits would have to be obtained, including an environmental impact report. Any company would also have to set bond with the state in case something goes wrong. 

“The state then has a fund they can tap into to see that the problem is corrected if the company is unable or unwilling to fix it,” Fauble said. 

Then, the department reviews all that information to make sure it’s complete. The cost of that review falls on the applicant. 

The final step of the permitting process is to hold a master hearing. 

“It kind of is run like a formal court proceeding. Generally, the administrative law judge determines whether they have given enough information and are in compliance with all the standards for environmental laws that may apply,” he said. 

At that time, the judge can direct the department to provide a license if all the environmental standards have been met. 

“At a minimum, this whole process may take five years — maybe more,” Fauble said. “The only mine that has actually gone through this entire process and been permitted is the Flambeau mine up near Ladysmith.” 

Looking to get the ball rolling soon 

The Flambeau mine ceased hauling ore in 1997. Since then, there has been no metallic mining in Wisconsin. 

While the state strictly regulates mining, Fifield said the mining company is looking at beginning the permitting process relatively soon. 

“I would hope that would be able to complete the process inside of a year and be ready to file a notice of intent,” Fifield said. “But because this is a sensitive project, we want to make sure when we file the notice of intent that we have a buy-in from the communities and stakeholders.” 

Gogebic Taconite is currently conducting a feasibility study for the project. However, Fifield is uncertain how long it may take to complete the study. In the meantime, he has been meeting with local officials in Bayfield, Ashland and Iron counties to better understand interest and concerns about a potential iron mine. 

“If you ignore people’s objections, that’s not a very good way to show you want to be a good neighbor,” Fifield said. 

To him, the potential for iron mining is promising. Fifield said they wouldn’t be pursuing the project if it appeared otherwise. As for receiving a go-ahead from the state, Fauble said it can be done regardless of the numerous environmental standards that must be met. 

“A lot of it’s going to depend on how committed they are to going through with the process and the impacts they’re potentially looking at,” Fauble said. “We didn’t make this law. We’re just charged with enforcing it. The Legislature is the one who sets policy.” 

Protecting the environment and enforcing such standards is the DNR’s number one priority, said Fauble. 

“We do it to make sure that the people who are proposing these things are willing and prepared to deal with the consequences of their actions should something go wrong,” Fauble said. “Our job is to be an impartial arbitrator of all the information coming from both the company, the applicants, and the public. To be able to evaluate those in an objective way and figure out exactly what sort of impacts we’re looking at.” 

Tomorrow in part two of our three part series, we’ll look at potential economic impacts associated with the proposed iron mine. On Friday, we’ll look at potential environmental impacts that may arise through the project. 

Danielle Kaeding can be reached at dkaeding@ashlanddailypress.net.