Tribal chairman calls for public scrutiny of samples from proposed iron mine 01.08.13


By Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel Jan. 8, 2013.

Rock samples from a proposed iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties should be made public so citizens and lawmakers can judge the potential harm that waste rock could have on local waters, Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. said Tuesday.

Wiggins said that he has asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to require mining company Gogebic Taconite to make the samples public. He plans to make the same request of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Wiggins visited Milwaukee with other members of the Bad River tribe to express their opposition to the $1.5 billion iron ore mine and proposed mining legislation that they said would weaken environmental safeguards.

Mining legislation is expected to be a top issue in the new session of the Legislature, with Republican leaders hopeful that a new bill will pass this spring.

Pro-mining forces, including Republican Gov. Scott Walker, have held their own events to showcase the economic importance of an iron ore mine - both for the north and for manufacturers and suppliers of the mining equipment industry.

During a meeting with Journal Sentinel reporters and editors, and later at a news conference, Wiggins said that the economic benefits of the mine are overblown and fail to take into account potential harm to tourism and recreation.

Wiggins said that even through mines exist in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Minnesota's Iron Range, the economies are far from robust.

Iron ore at the proposed Wisconsin mine is situated in such a way that miners would have to remove massive amounts of waste rock to reach it.

The Bad River tribe believes chemicals in the waste rock pose a threat to waters downstream. The Bad River Reservation lies downstream on Lake Superior.

The mine would be "dangerous to Wisconsin and our national (tribal) survival," Wiggins said.

The tribe is poised to play an integral role in regulation of a mine if it is built. The EPA has granted it authority to set water quality standards stricter than state limits.

Those standards would affect upstream users such as Gogebic, and an attorney representing the Bad River said the tribe intends to vigorously protect their waters, which includes the Kakagon and Bad River sloughs.

The sloughs were recognized last year as wetlands of international importance by the Ramsar Convention.

Ramsar is a global environmental treaty aimed at recognizing and protecting ecologically significant wetlands.

"The federal government is going to take these standards very seriously," said Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates.

Wiggins said he wants the rock samples made public before lawmakers act on a mining bill, which opponents say will weaken protections and allow waste rock to be dumped into waterways.

Worry over sulfides

The samples originated with companies that have sold an option for the mineral rights to Gogebic or had a past financial interest in the forested property that lies between Mellen and Hurley.

La Pointe Iron Co. of Hibbing, Minn., and RGGS Land & Minerals Ltd. of Houston sold the mineral rights option to Gogebic. RGGS and another former owner, U.S. Steel, which also performed extensive mineral borings, have been marketing the property for years.

Wiggins said that other samples of rock in the area show high levels of sulfides.

Sulfides are chemical compounds that occur naturally in some rock formations. They can react with oxygen and water to create a more dangerous condition known as acid mine drainage.

Ann Coakley, the top mining regulator with the DNR, says Gogebic's rock samples are proprietary. The DNR has no data from them, but she would not be surprised to see sulfides in rock samples due to the geology of the region.

Once Gogebic submits an application, the data would be made public, she said.

Bill Williams, president of the Gogebic, agreed that the rock samples should be made public, but only after his company has filed an application to mine the area.

"We think that the levels are very, very low," Williams said.

If the DNR determines that sulfide levels are elevated and would pose a threat to acid mine drainage, Williams said Gogebic would have to engineer a solution to ensure that tainted waters don't harm groundwater or the watershed, including the Bad River Reservation.

As for claims the mine would cause harm, Williams said it will not be built if it can't meet state and federal environmental regulations.