A rich vein of taconite runs through the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin. Twenty-two miles long, 1½ miles wide, and 1,500 feet deep, the resource contains an estimated 20 percent of our nation’s remaining iron ore deposits.
Gogebic Taconite, a subsidiary of the Cline Group (a West Virginia coal mining company), wants to put a mine there.
Residents of Ashland and Iron counties are wary. They are concerned about the effects a large-scale mining operation would have on the Bad River watershed.
According to Frank Koehn, president of the Penokee Hills Education Project, legislation is being drafted this fall that would revise Wisconsin’s current mining regulations. Reports of the draft bill suggest that the new law would fast-track the approval process, curtail opportunities for public input, exempt the mining companies from local zoning ordinances and allow dumping of wastes into the watershed.
All mines have negative effects on someone, but some mines have more negative effects than others. It is through the painstaking process of regulation that the details of who pays the costs get worked out. Some of the costs are easy to determine and immediate, some are long-term and harder to estimate.
Iron ore processing requires about 1,300 gallons of water per ton of taconite; Gogebic estimates that they will produce 8 million tons of taconite per year. That means 10.4 billion gallons of water will be taken out of the watershed yearly.
The Bad River watershed includes numerous brook trout streams, sturgeon spawning areas and the largest wild rice bed in North America.
What is that watershed worth? Who pays for it if it gets destroyed?
In his memoir “The Land Remembers,” Ben Logan writes about the drought that afflicted Wisconsin farms in the 1930s:
From the drying up of the wells, we learned that the need to protect the land was not just local. A state geologist explained what he thought had happened. Much of the well water in southwestern Wisconsin came from a layer of limestone buried 300 feet or more below the surface of the ridges.
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That layer of limestone slanted upward, to the north, so that a hundred miles away, in north central Wisconsin, the limestone lay at the surface. There, it picked up water. That water seeped slowly southward through the limestone to our wells, taking perhaps 75 years to make the trip. And about 75 years before, the geologist pointed out, men had drained the surface water from the north central Wisconsin marshes to make more farmland.
The story of the 75-year-old well water and the draining of the marshes made a deep impression on Father. “There’s just too much we don’t know,” he said. “How could somebody way up there know he was draining away our water supply? For that matter what are we doing right here that’s changing things someplace else?
“I guess we can’t be expected to know everything in advance,” Mother said gently.
“That’s right. But we can damn well go slow when we start changing things. We can admit that we’re playing around with something that’s a lot bigger than we are.”
Wisconsin has the strictest mining regulations in the United States. The Cline Group would prefer the state’s regulations to be similar to those of other states, where the permitting process is friendlier to mining interests.
But the current laws are there for good reason. They ensure significant economic benefit to the residents of the state and protection for sensitive environmental areas. They also require opportunities for public input. In short, they ensure that the burden of paying for the costs falls upon those who reap the benefits.
Sometimes government does a poor job of regulation. It can be slow, burdensome, overly complicated and inconsistent. But regulation is a necessity. Mining companies have little incentive to pay attention to long-term consequences, so the incentives need to be mandated.
The purpose of government regulation is to protect the common good — to ensure the integrity of those things that we cannot possess individually but must share in common if we are to have them at all — things such as clean air and water, healthy food and safety.
When it comes to the common good, you can’t fast-track doing the right thing.
Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.