Thursday, June 23, 2011

Opinion: What's the rush on mine permitting?

By Al Gedicks*
Published on May 19, 2011, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Should the state's regulatory authority over the metallic mine permitting process be dramatically reduced to accommodate the wishes of a mining company to receive a permit in record time? This is not a hypothetical question.

Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) has met with several legislators about its proposed open pit iron ore (taconite) mine along the border of Ashland and Iron counties to push legislation that would drastically speed up the mine permitting process.

The present review process, which was the result of hard-fought environmental battles in the 1970s, can take several years, depending on the complexity of the mine plan and the potential environmental impacts of the project. However, Sen. Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee) and state Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) plan to propose legislation that would reduce the review to 300 days. GTAC President Bill Williams told a reporter that his company may abandon its plans for a $1.5 billion taconite mine and processing plant if the process takes too long.

Ever since a grass-roots Indian and environmental alliance defeated a proposal to build a metallic sulfide mine at Crandon, the international mining industry has considered the state among the least favorable places for mining investment.

In 1998, the state passed the Mining Moratorium Law, which requires that before the state can issue a permit for the mining of sulfide ore bodies, potential miners must provide an example of where a metallic sulfide mine in the United States or Canada has not polluted surface and groundwaters during or after mining. In 2003, the Sokaogon Chippewa and the Forest County Potawatomi tribes bought the Crandon mine property for $16.5 million and ended a 28-year conflict over the mine.

GTAC now wants to turn back the clock on environmental protection and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. Gogebic Taconite is a limited liability company
registered on the Toronto Stock Exchange and owned by the Cline Group, a coal mining company based in Florida. Christopher Cline is a billionaire who owns large coal reserves in Illinois and Northern Appalachia.

If GTAC has its way, local citizens and the Bad River Chippewa tribe, who will be most directly affected by the proposed mine, will have little opportunity to participate
in a thorough review of the social, economic and environmental impacts of the project. What information might be disclosed during a mine permit review process that would be so threatening to GTAC?

Bad River Chippewa Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. is concerned that this mine could discharge polluted water to the Bad River watershed and the tribe's wild rice beds in the Kakagon Sloughs, a 16,000-acre complex of wetlands, woodlands and sand dune ecosystems that is one of the largest freshwater estuaries in the world. Wild rice is a sacred plant for the Chippewa and is very sensitive to water contamination as well as fluctuations in water levels. Dewatering operations at the proposed mine could lower the water table around the mine. It was the effort to protect the Sokaogon Chippewa's wild rice beds that propelled the Crandon mine conflict.

The proposed mine involves extracting taconite by removing about 650 feet of overburden and creating a narrow pit around 4 miles long, up to 900 feet deep and a quarter-mile wide. The overburden would be dumped in massive tailings piles along the northwest side of the Penokee-Gogebic Range and at the headwaters of the Bad River Watershed. These large tailings piles have the potential to generate acid rock drainage if sulfide minerals are present in the waste rock.

These issues need to be evaluated in a fair and open environmental review through which the public and the Lake Superior Chippewa bands have the opportunity to have full disclosure of the potential impacts of the project. Legislation that would reduce the review process to 300 days would severely limit full disclosure of these impacts and be in direct violation of both state environmental law and treaties with the Lake Superior Chippewa bands.

Zipperer has expressed his desire to have the legislation passed before the end of the current session on June 30. Why is this legislation being fast-tracked? If passed, this legislation will effectively exclude Wisconsin citizens and tribes from having a voice in one of the most far reaching environmental decisions facing northern Wisconsin communities.

* Guest author Al Gedicks teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and is author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.

Editor's Notes: This article was published on May 19, 2011, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Reprinted here with permission of the author. It also appeared in Headwaters News, posted on June 7, 2011.

On June 21, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article titled "Mining company says project on hold until Legislature changes law," which states, "Gogebic Taconite says that it won't proceed with a proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin until the Legislature rewrites laws to speed the state's review process to construct mines."

A June 22 article in the Wisconsin State Journal, "Iron ore mine plans on hold in northern Wisconsin," reports Gogebic Taconite claims the projected open-pit iron mine would create jobs in Michigan's Upper Peninsula as well as Wisconsin. Gogebic Taconite has proposed building the mine in Ashland and Iron counties (Wisconsin) in the Penokee Range, the headwaters of the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior.

Neither article mentions Native American rights or the Chippewa wild rice beds. The State Journal article notes the legislature will probably take up the issue again in the fall.

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