Science info on iron mine in Wisconsin's Penokee Hills 06.10.13 (Posted)

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APR 11, 2013 by James Richard Bailey

I'd like to provide some logical, scientific information about the open pit iron mine proposed for the Penokee Hills in Ashland and Iron Counties of Wisconsin. The first and most important thing to understand is the difference between the old style shaft mines that have operated in the past around the Ironwood/Hurley area and the open pit mine that is now being proposed for this region.

The tailings piles that people keep referring to that are located adjacent to the Montreal River are tiny compared to the mountains of waste rock that would be generated by the Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) operation. In just the first phase of its operation, the GTAC mine would be the world's largest open pit iron mine. Period. We are talking a hole four miles long, a half mile wide and 1,000 feet deep. When I said mountains of waste rock that was no exaggeration. We are talking billions of tons of the stuff. And, they propose a total of three phases, extending through a 100 year time span.

The next thing to understand involves a little bit of science. Think of battery acid, the stuff under the hood of your car that eats holes in your jeans. That is sulfuric acid. The waste rock that would come out of the GTAC mine has a lot of fool's gold in it, also known as iron pyrite. That is a sulfur compound that when exposed to air and water creates sulfuric acid. The amount of iron pyrite in the waste rock is enough to generate a gallon of battery acid per ton of rock. That means billions of gallons of battery acid with only one place to go: into the ground water.

To make matters worse, there are quite a few toxic substances in the waste rock as well as the iron ore itself that would be dissolved by the acid and put into the water with it, like mercury, lead, manganese, cadmium, and arsenic. Many people assume that these substances have not posed any problems when they were underground, so why would they do so if dug up? Think of coffee beans. Put some of them in a cup of boiling water and you don't get much of anything. Now, grind them up and let the water perk through them, and you get coffee.

The same is true of the waste rock that is on top of the iron ore up in the Penokees. Blast it, dig it up, load it, unload it, bulldoze it around, mix it with water and air, and you get a toxic stew. Right at the top of the Bad River Watershed. It doesn't take much imagination to figure out how these toxins will affect human beings, wildlife and plant life.

We have only to look at the 100 mile long dead zone in the St. Louis River downstream from the US Steel MinnTac mine. What was once a cornucopia of wild rice and fish is now a lifeless stretch of water. It is also a huge human cancer cluster area. Why? MinnTac puts over 50 times the amount of sulfide into the river than is allowed by Minnesota law. Why doesn't the law stop this? It is because MinnTac finds it profitable to simply pay ongoing fines and keep doing business as usual.

This is the whole reason for the new mining law in Wisconsin, which places iron mining in a different category from other metallic mines which produce copper, nickel, gold, silver and, by natural occurrence, lots of sulfides. The problem is that in the Penokee Hills, the iron ore is buried under a huge body of rock called the Tyler Shale. It is rich in sulfur and phosphate compounds. The Tyler Shale has to be dug up to get to the iron ore. That is why this mine should be held to the same standards as the copper mine in Ladysmith was.

It is also why the old shaft mines cleverly avoided the Tyler Shale. They burrowed through it and around it, following seams of high grade ore. Furthermore, if anybody says that we don't know for sure what is down there, they either lie or are ignorant of the facts. The truth is that the old mine shafts all went right through the Ironwood Formation as they followed the trail of high grade ore. They discovered a ten foot thick layer of almost pure fools gold that splits the ore in the Ironwood Lode neatly in half, going the entire length and width of it.

US Steel knew that there was no way to mine that ore without befouling the most pristine area of the state of Wisconsin. They also had just seen how a coalition of Indian tribes, business people concerned about tourism, sportsmen and environmentalists had defeated attempts by the mighty Exxon corporation to excavate a metallic sulfide mine at the headwaters of the Wolf River in northeast Wisconsin adjacent to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwa reservation.

This is why in 2003 US Steel was willing to sell their interest in the ore body under16,000 acres of the Penokee Range. It was to be bought by The Nature Conservancy in the form of conservation easements that would have prohibited mining but would have permitted forestry management for timber harvest. Then, all of a sudden, US Steel turned around and sold the interest to Texas-based RGGS Land and Minerals. Why? Because it was a better offer. There was just one problem with it.

Gogebic Taconite desperately needed the recently passed Mining Deregulation law because it simply would not be economical to pursue this technically difficult mine unless they could willy nilly dump all of the waste rock wherever they felt like it, regardless of human health and environmental considerations. For that same reason, if given the go ahead on this dangerous plan, they will cut costs at every turn by employing existing personnel who are laid off from other mining operations in the region. They will also pursue the latest technology in robot mining to reduce the need for humans in every phase of the operation.

Lastly, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin has already been recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency as having jurisdiction over this matter. They will utilize the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to prevent this ruinous operation from ever happening. Some ore bodies are simply in places where they cannot ever be extracted because of safety and environmental reasons, and this is one of them.

This is the reason why all of the big players in iron mining, Cliffs Natural Resources Inc., ArcelorMittal USA and U.S. Steel Corp., have all long ago deemed the Ironwood Formation as being uneconomical to pursue.

((Scientific basis for this information found at  --  NOTE: click on text itself to use page up and page down))