MADISON — Compared with the millions of years that iron has rested beneath the Penokee Hills, the monthslong political fray over mine permitting in Wisconsin is but a blip on a geologic timescale. Yet according to state mining experts and others, the controversy may have lasting effects.
Tom Evans, a geologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey who has written extensively about mining and mine regulation in Wisconsin, said it may be some time before another mining company considers a proposal to remove the billions of tons of iron that lie beneath the Penokees in Iron and Ashland counties.
That’s partly because of the bitterness that lingers from the political battle, but also because of some important knowledge the debate brought to light both about the hard-to-reach iron ore and the rich and fragile natural resources sheltered within the Penokee Range.
“I don’t think we’re going to see anybody looking there any time soon,” Evans said of potential interest by other mining companies. “There are a lot of bad feelings out there now. That may take some time to cool down. It was a hard process.”
The band of iron that stirred so much emotion in recent months stretches from Wisconsin, west of Mellen, to the northeast up into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Evans said the range in Iron and Ashland counties could contain as much as 3.7 billion tons of iron ore, which some have estimated represents as much as 20 percent of the known iron deposits in the United States.
Gogebic Taconite — which proposed the mine contingent on the state Legislature steamlining the permit process — is by no means the first company to try to mine the range. Between 1886 and 1965, 71 million tons of iron was removed from numerous shaft mines, including one a mile deep, between Mellen and Hurley. U.S. Steel owned mineral rights for years in the hills and did some analysis of the ore body.
In more recent years, a Texas company — RGGS Land and Minerals — has controlled most of the property. Gogebic, which abandoned its project last week, retains an option on 22,000 acres to lease both land and surface rights from RGGS.
None of this investment activity, however, has led to even a spade of dirt being turned in recent years.
An expensive place to mine
The Penokee Range is a difficult and expensive place for a mining company to set up shop. One major problem facing any company that wants to mine the Gogebic deposit, Evans said, is the rock holding the iron was tilted upright by geologic forces at a 60-degree angle. Getting at the deepest sections of ore would require going deep into the Earth. That’s why Gogebic Taconite proposed a 1,000-foot-deep mine, Evans said.
Marcia Bjornerud, a professor of geology at Lawrence University in Appleton, said going that deep would have required Gogebic to remove an enormous amount of rock from above the iron deposit. Based on geologic maps of the deposit, Bjornerud estimated about 83 million cubic meters of rock would have had to be removed to reach the iron. She said the estimate is conservative because it assumes steep walls in the pit — when they would in reality have to be terraced — and it is for a one-mile-long mine, where Gogebic proposed a mine that could be four miles long.
In addition, Bjornerud and Evans said, most geologists agree — despite denials from both Gogebic and its supporters — that the rock sitting on top of the actual iron deposit contains sulfides. Sulfides, when exposed to air and water, create toxic acid drainage, Bjornerud said.
All of this, Bjornerud and Evans agreed, adds up to a huge amount of money that would have to be invested not only in removal and storage of the waste rock but also in treatment systems to prevent pollution.
The expense of safely mining that particular site — with its wetlands and trout streams and the headwaters of the Bad River — may account in large part for why Gogebic Taconite pushed so hard for legislation that included exemptions from several environmental laws, Evans said.
“The site poses some very difficult environmental challenges,” Evans said. “That affects your bottom line. And that really came to the fore.”
Obstacles won’t go away
Any mine company that tries to follow in Gogebic’s wake will face the same challenges. “The site is not going to change,” Evans said.
Bill Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite, told the Wisconsin State Journal in interviews for a series about the mine in the fall that exemptions from laws protecting high-quality wetlands were among the most important of the changes to state mine laws being sought by Gogebic, along with setting a deadline for the state to act on a permit application.
And last week, just before the Senate took up the GOP-authored mine permitting bill, Williams said the permitting changes the company hoped to see approved had everything to do with the high cost of building a mine on the Gogebic iron range. He said the environmental studies alone — which the company postponed pending legislative action on the permit changes — were going to cost the company $20 million.
On top of the costs related specifically to the Penokee site, Williams said Wisconsin’s strict permitting requirements and open-ended timeline for acting on a permit application were discouraging not only to Gogebic but all mining companies considering doing business in the state.
“Right now, it would be impossible for you to get an investor to come into the state without an end date for the permitting,” Williams said.
Republican legislators who worked with Gogebic to try to get the permit system changed insisted throughout the debate that the bill was more about setting those deadlines for the state Department of Natural Resources than about easing environmental restrictions.
A mix of politics, environment
After all the drama, it remains likely, according to both sides in the debate, that changes eventually will be made to the state’s mine permitting law so a mining company can have more certainty about when the DNR will act on a permit application. State Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, the lone Republican to oppose the GOP-authored permitting bill, said as much in remarks on the Senate floor.
“I would love to vote for a responsible mining bill,” Schultz said.
Still, in the end, it might have been less about the differences over the timeline or even the shape of public legal challenges than it was about differences over the environmental changes sought by Gogebic that spelled doom for the legislation, according to some.
Not everyone agrees.
Last week, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp put out a press release insisting proposed changes in permitting included adequate environmental protections and the vote on the permitting bill had less to do with the environment than politics.
“Unfortunately, in the end, the motivation to not allow a potential success for Gov. Walker appears to be what really killed the bill,” Stepp, a Walker appointee, said.
State Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, said the bill ultimately failed because legislators were not able to find a proper balance between creating jobs and protecting the environment of the Penokee Hills.
In the fall, Mellen Mayor Joe Barabe said that, though he strongly supported a mine in the Penokees, he also wanted to make sure the area’s rich natural resources would be protected.
He said last week he was happy a permitting bill that relaxed environmental protections didn’t make it through the state Legislature.
“We can still have a mine,” Barabe said. “But somebody is going to have to come in here and say, ‘Let’s do this right.’”