Saturday, November 19, 2011

Updated: Penokee iron mining proposal threatens Bad River watershed

By Michele Bourdieu

View of the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin, where Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) plans to put a huge open pit iron mine. Click on photos for larger versions. (Photo © Pete Rasmussen, Moving Water Photography, and courtesy Penokee Hills Education Project.* Reprinted with permission.)

LA CROSSE, WISCONSIN -- Al Gedicks, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse and author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations, recently published an article on the projected Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) open-pit mine for taconite iron deposits of the Penokee Range in northern Wisconsin. The article, titled "Resisting Resource Colonialism in the Lake Superior Region," was published by Z Magazine in September 2011.**

At the beginning of the article, Gedicks notes his main concern about the potential impact of such a mine: its effect on the water.

"The water that flows off the iron-rich Penokee Hills feeds the Penokee aquifer and the Bad River watershed, which flows into Lake Superior and provides drinking water for the city of Ashland and nearby towns. The water also feeds the wild rice beds of the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe. Wild rice is a sacred plant for the Ojibwe and an important food source. The tribe’s wild rice beds are the largest in the state," Gedicks writes.

For the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe, clean water is essential for their fisheries and wild rice crop. This photo shows a brook trout from Spring Brook in the Penokees. (Photo © Pete Rasmussen, Moving Water Photography, and courtesy Penokee Hills Education Project.* Reprinted with permission.)

This is not the first time Gedicks has been involved in a mining project that threatened water quality and Native American rights. He was actively involved in the struggle against the Crandon Mine, which he wrote about in two well documented books: The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations (1993) and Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations (2001). That struggle eventually led to Wisconsin's moratorium on sulfide mining. Gedicks summarized this for an audience at the 2011 Protect the Earth Gathering at Van Riper State Park near Champion, Mich., last summer. Here is an excerpt from his talk:

During the 2011 Protect the Earth Gathering at Van Riper State Park near Champion, Mich., Al Gedicks, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, speaks about the importance of the struggle against the Crandon Mine, which led to Wisconsin's moratorium on sulfide mining. (Video by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)

What the proponents of this iron mine seem to be seeking is legislation that will distinguish between ferrous and non-ferrous mining so that the permitting process for iron mining will be speeded up.

Unlike Rio Tinto-Kennecott's Eagle Mine for nickel and copper near Big Bay, Mich., the Penokee iron ore project is not considered a sulfide mine. GTAC, which has leases for the mineral rights on 22,000 acres of the Penokee-Gogebic Range, covering 22 miles in Wisconsin's Ashland and Iron Counties, stresses the difference between ferrous and non-ferrous mining in their public relations, trying to convince the public that this "iron" mine is safer than a "sulfide" mine that has a high potential to produce acid mine drainage (AMD) -- since iron mining, as they describe it, does not use chemicals.***

As Gedicks points out in his article, GTAC goes beyond just public relations trying to prove their claims that taconite mining can be done safely without harming the environment. They are heavily involved in "crafting legislation that would prevent the public and the state’s Indian Nations from challenging any of these claims by excluding them from participation in the mine permitting process."

In fact, he notes, GTAC "contributed more than $40,000 in 2010 campaign contributions to Republican candidates involved with the mining issue, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee)."

Penokee project discussed at Oct. 27 meeting on legislation, Hurley, Wis.

Gogebic Taconite's projected open-pit mine for taconite iron deposits of the Penokee Range in northern Wisconsin was an important part of the discussion at an informational hearing in Hurley, Wis., on Oct. 27, 2011. The meeting was called by the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business. The subject of the meeting was "Creation of Iron Mining Statutes in Wisconsin: Economic and Environmental Considerations."

Its purpose was stated in the meeting announcement as follows: "In the near future and following the Informational Hearing, the Committee will be tasked with considering legislation to update Wisconsin's metallic mining laws to reflect the differences between ferrous and nonferrous mining. The legislation will have two primary goals: ensuring that ferrous mining in this state is economical, and providing for reasonable environmental protections. The purpose of the Informational Hearing is to gather relevant information related to this task." Invited speakers and the public were asked to comment.

Wisconsin Public Radio interview

At 7 a.m. on Oct. 27, just a few hours before this meeting, Wisconsin Public Radio's Ideas Network broadcast an interview presenting two opposing views on the subject. The interviewer, Joy Cardin, first spoke by telephone with one of the invited speakers -- Tim Sullivan, chair of the Wisconsin Mining Association and former president and CEO of Bucyrus International, Inc. Sullivan was on his way to the meeting. Cardin also interviewed Al Gedicks. The listening audience was invited to call in their questions.

Sullivan mentioned the Crandon Mine, admitting it was a complicated issue and many of the objections to it were "probably appropriate," especially since it was an underground mine and located at the headwaters of the Wolf River.

"It was a copper mine, which is a sulfide mine," Sullivan said.

He added that the processing of copper requires chemicals, while an iron mine, such as the projected open-pit Gogebic Taconite mine, uses large magnets -- not chemicals -- to extract the iron.

Sullivan expressed concern that the iron mining company should not get caught in laws that were made in response to the Crandon Mine.

"No one wants to unduly speed the process, but we want to make it so it's at least reasonable," Sullivan told Cardin.

Sullivan noted the purpose of proposed legislation would be to differentiate between ferrous and non-ferrous mining so that ferrous (iron) mining does not come under laws for a sulfide mine. He said the mine proponents want to align processing time (for permits) with those of "sister states" Minnesota and Michigan, which, he said, are "more reasonable."

After Sullivan presented his views, radio host Cardin welcomed questions from listeners.

One caller asked why the company shouldn't have to pay a severance tax on the tonnage extracted and a pollution tax since there is no non-polluting way to mine this ore.

"We are giving away something that belongs to all of us," he said.

Sullivan said under current Wisconsin statutes all the tax money (millions of dollars) goes back to the two counties.

A caller who has property in Republic, Mich., and is familiar with the closing of Cleveland Cliffs iron mine, asked about the impact of tailings on water sources.

This aerial photo shows Cleveland Cliffs Tilden and Empire Mines, including tailing ponds, tailing piles, mining and milling facilities. Click on photo for larger version. (Photo © Jeremiah Eagle Eye. Reprinted with permission.)

Sullivan replied that laws and regulations on tailings -- restrictions by the EPA -- have to be upheld.

On the other hand, Sullivan echoed the boasting from Kennecott when he said, "The Flambeau Mine (near Ladysmith, Wis.) had no issues. It was very successful."

Not only is the water pollution at the Flambeau Mine the subject of a lawsuit initiated by Laura Gauger, co-author with the late Roscoe Churchill of The Buzzards Have Landed: The real story of the Flambeau Mine, and by the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, of which Al Gedicks is the executive secretary -- but recent tests have confirmed that copper and zinc levels at the Flambeau mine have exceeded state toxicity standards for surface waters, potentially threatening fish and other aquatic life.****

"Just grass over a grave" is what the late Roscoe Churchill -- pictured here at the "reclaimed" Flambeau Mine site near Ladysmith, Wis. -- called the reclamation by the Flambeau Mining Co., a Rio Tinto / Kennecott subsidiary, that now faces a Clean Water Act citizen lawsuit because of pollution of the Flambeau River and one of its tributaries. (Keweenaw Now file photo © Linda Runstrom, Winona, Minn. Reprinted with permission.)

Cardin then interviewed Gedicks, who said the State of Wisconsin should not be in a rush to change the rules about mining.

Gedicks said -- both in the interview and in his September article -- that his primary concern is the impact of the Penokee mine releasing toxic materials, including mercury, into the watershed that is used by nearby communities and the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe, whose wild rice beds could be destroyed by the potential Acid Mine Drainage pollution -- as well as the impact of the discharge of pollutants into Lake Superior.

His second concern, Gedicks added, is "the erosion of democratic access to the the decision-making process about mining."

Gedicks mentioned the citizens' alliance (sports fishermen, environmentalists, and Native Americans) whose struggle against the Crandon Mine led to the moratorium on sulfide mining. (See video above.) He sees this rush to introduce new mining legislation as an effort to overturn that moratorium.

Gedicks pointed out that this ferrous mine could have impacts similar to those of a sulfide mine. He called Sullivan's distinction between ferrous and non-ferrous mining "a fundamental misrepresentation of what is at stake in the Penokee Gogebic Taconite project."

According to Gedicks, the Penokee iron ore body is in an area that contains sulfide minerals.

"The quantity of material that would have to be excavated in order to get at the iron ore penetrates through 1500 feet of rock material, which includes sulfide mineralization," Gedicks said.

This overburden, containing heavy metals and sulfides, would be blasted, crushed and piled at the headwaters of the watershed and would be released into the environment, Gedicks explained.

Aerial view of the Penokee Hills, where Gogebic Taconite plans to put an open-pit iron mine -- a $1.5 billion investment -- to extract taconite by removing about 650 feet of overburden (waste rock) and creating a narrow pit four miles long, one-third mile wide and at least 900 feet deep. This photo shows the south and east side of the proposed Penokee mine site: Looking northeast, where Mud Creek meets Mead Creak and the Tyler Forks. (Photo © Pete Rasmussen, Moving Water Photography, and courtesy Penokee Hills Education Project.* Reprinted with permission.)

Even without pollution this mine would take from 10 to 15 billion gallons of water a year from the watershed in order to extract the ore, seriously impacting the water supply, he added.

Cardin then asked him about Sullivan's statement that Wisconsin mining laws should be more like those of Minnesota and Michigan.

Gedicks replied that taconite mining in Minnesota has released pollution, and -- instead of enforcing laws designed to prevent pollution -- the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is granting waivers and variances that allow ongoing taconite operations to continue polluting water sources.

In Michigan, he added, Kennecott -- the same company that has polluted water at the Flambeau mine -- is being allowed to proceed with the Eagle project.

Rio Tinto-Kennecott's Eagle Mine near Big Bay, Mich. Photo taken as the company was preparing to blast under Eagle Rock, an Ojibwe sacred site, the portal to the mine which is intended to access an ore body of nickel and copper under the Salmon Trout River. (Photo courtesy Stand for the Land)

"They are being allowed to proceed with a mining project which their own experts have told the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is likely to collapse," Gedicks noted. "If it does collapse into the Salmon Trout River, all the pollution from that mine would go into Lake Superior, which is about 10 miles downstream from the proposed mine. This is a model of environmental irresponsibility -- which the Wisconsin Mining Association is trying to get Wisconsin to adopt -- that will, in fact, prevent the State of Wisconsin from enforcing the already adequate and quite comprehensive and protective legislation which now protects ground water and surface water from this type of mining."

Al Gedicks: "What is more valuable -- iron ore or water?"

Gedicks said this issue includes the potential destruction of entire ecosystems which are unique in the Great Lakes region -- including people, wildlife and wild rice -- a violation of the sovereign rights of an Ojibwe Nation that is the direct recipient of the pollution.

"We're talking about a violation of international treaties with Canada to protect the Great Lakes," he added.

Gedicks said the question is this: "Do we sacrifice the interests of the vast majority of the citizens and the tribes of Wisconsin -- and the environment -- for a private development of a mining company which has, first of all, no record of mining in a taconite ore body -- and the record it does have, mining coal in Illinois, is full of complaints from nearby communities."

The company's underground coal mining in Illinois has destroyed farmland and the economies of these communities, he explained.

In his article on the Penokee project, Gedicks gives the background of the Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) company and its relation to coal mining: "GTAC is a limited liability company registered on the Toronto Stock Exchange and owned by the privately held Cline Group, a coal mining company based in Florida. Christopher Cline is a billionaire who owns large coal reserves in Illinois and Northern Appalachia. He has been called the "New King Coal" by Bloomberg Markets Magazine. Coal industry publications describe his leadership style as confrontational. In 1999 he closed down a West Virginia mine when workers voted to join the union. He then reopened the mine without union workers. As popular opposition to the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining spread in Appalachia, Cline shifted his new investments to Illinois coal. The company's coal mines in Illinois use longwall mining to remove the entire coal seam. Once the coal has been removed the ground sinks, sometimes to a depth of more than four feet as the earth above the excavated coal fills the void. Environmental groups have protested that longwall mining has disrupted stream flows, polluted aquifers and permanently damaged historic buildings."

Answering a question from a listener on whether the Penokee project is a strip mine or a surface mine, Gedicks said the notion that it is a surface mine is a misrepresentation because of the location of the ore body -- 1500 feet down into the bedrock.

"This is a version of mountaintop removal mining," Gedicks said, comparing it to coal mining in Appalachia.

While the Gogebic Range is not as high as mountains in Appalachia, the mining has the same end result: you knock off the top and store waste material at the headwaters of a pristine watershed that affects the economy of people, their access to water, and their relationship with the environment, Gedicks said.

Cardin asked Gedicks if there would be a challenge to the Gogebic Taconite project from Native Americans.

Gedicks said the Bad River tribe met with Governor Walker's office. Although they were heard, the Governor's office has done nothing about it. The tribe has, however, received authority from the EPA to set up their own water quality standards -- for water that affects their wild rice -- in order to prohibit any discharges of polluted water that would threaten their existence as a tribal entity.

This map shows the location of the Penokee ore body in relation to the Bad River watershed and the Reservation of the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe. Click on map for larger version. (Map created June 8, 2011, by the Bad River Natural Resources Dept. and courtesy Dick Thiede, Iron County, Wisconsin, resident.)

A July 6, 2011, document listing the Bad River Tribe's water quality standards states this in its introduction:

"The Bad River Tribe (Tribe) has a primary interest in the protection, control, conservation and utilization of the water resources of the Bad River Reservation, as exemplified in the original treaty and the Bad River Constitution and ultimately recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on June 26, 2009, when it affirmed the tribe's application for program authority. The program authority granted by the EPA is in addition to the Tribe's historic hunting, fishing, gathering, and usufructuary rights, and is in addition to the Tribe's treaty rights."

A listener called in to ask what other toxins besides sulfur and acid could affect the water and how much impact they would have on the lake. Gedicks said not only does AMD destroy wild rice, the acid also releases 26 other heavy metals, including mercury, into the environment. Some of these heavy metals would go into Lake Superior.

Toward the end of the radio interview, Joy Cardin noted an email question from a listener in Hurley, who asked about jobs, noting mining has been successful in other states so why not have it in Wisconsin.

Sullivan had said that the construction process for the Penokee project would include 2000 - 3000 jobs. The mine itself would offer 700 jobs. According to Sullivan, most of the jobs would be semi-skilled, not requiring advanced training. In addition to these new jobs, the project would help sustain mining-related jobs in other parts of Wisconsin, such as machinery to be manufactured in Milwaukee.

Gedicks questioned the listener's word "successful," pointing out that schools are closed in many former taconite mining locations in Minnesota. He calls this the "resource curse" -- communities that are the richest in resources turn out to be the most impoverished because the mining companies take out the minerals but fail to invest in the community. The people don't receive the economic benefits they've been promised.

Whether or not a job as a taconite miner is a "benefit" is questionable as well if one considers human health impacts of taconite mining.

In his September 2011 article, Gedicks comments on health effects of taconite mining on Minnesota miners: "The Minnesota Health Department has confirmed 58 taconite miners have died of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, since 2003. Researchers concluded that commercial asbestos was the likely cause of the mesothelioma though it didn't rule out taconite dust as a factor. Some scientists have suspected that exposure to asbestos might be from inhaling asbestos-like fibers in the taconite production plants or from contaminated taconite rocks."

Gedicks said the reason the mining proponents want this legislation is so they can prevent a full and public disclosure of all the potential social, economic and environmental impacts of this Penokee project.

"If people actually understood how vast this project was -- that it's the largest mining project ever contemplated in the State of Wisconsin -- they would have serious second thoughts about this project," Gedicks said.

Dick Thiede, a resident of Iron County, Wis., who attended the Oct. 27, 2011, public meeting in Hurley, said he tries to maintain a good relationship with people on both sides of the mining issue.

"I guess I’d have to say that I was most impressed with the statements by Chairman Wiggins of the Bad River Band," Thiede told Keweenaw Now. "I think he came into a relatively hostile environment and gave an honest evaluation of the situation and of his people’s concerns which seemed to soften some of the hostility aimed at the tribe. Other than that, I had heard most of the other testimony before. Some of it was factual, some not."

Conflicting views of the Oct. 27 public meeting in Hurley were published by Ashland media following the meeting.

See "Varied Voices At Mining-Related Hearings" in the Oct. 27, 2011, Ashland Current. It includes comments posted by readers. One person claimed to have stayed at the meeting nearly nine hours.

See also "Marathon meeting runs into a mining-friendly crowd" and "Bad River tribe, others want no part of mine," in the Oct. 28, 2011, Ashland Daily Press.

The second Daily Press article cites Mike Wiggins, Jr., the Bad River Tribal Council chair, as expressing the tribe's opposition to the mining proposal and their right to set water quality standards. A video clip of Wiggins stating the position of the tribe (posted about a week before this meeting) is available on YouTube.

Editor's Notes: Click here to listen to this radio interview in the Wisconsin Public Radio archives.

Update: The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), in the Winter 2011-2012 issue of its publication MAZINA'IGAN, has two articles on Great Lakes mining issues involving the Bad River Tribe. One article, "Changes to WI mining laws subject of hearing," reports on testimonies by GLIFWC staff at the Oct. 27, 2011, public meeting in Hurley, Wis. Click here to read these two articles on line.

* Click here to visit the Web site of the Penokee Hills Education Project. Keweenaw Now wishes to thank Frank Koehn, guest speaker at the recent annual meeting of FOLK (Friends of the Land of Keweenaw) for information about this group and their work. Thanks also to Dick Thiede for sharing documents with Keweenaw Now.

** Click here to read this article by Al Gedicks: "Resisting Resource Colonialism in the Lake Superior Region."

*** Visit the Gogebic Taconite Web page to read what they say about this project.

**** See the Nov. 1, 2011, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, "Tests find toxins at Flambeau mine."


cousin jack said...

You are free to talk about the "mine" of course, but all discussion is premature until the facts have been assembled and shared. Cline is employing a tactic of wearing down the opposition through meaningless argument. Tell him to do his home- work then come back with his plan - then we can discuss, for example, how much he knows about mining,how surface and underground water will be affected and why he contemplates stripping 600 ft of overburden instead of mining underground. Give us the chemistry of the rocks and the water. Tell him too that mining of metals other than iron will not be permitted, then he may go elsewhere. At present he is wasting our time and money. Don't do that.

Jack Parker, Mining Engineer, Baltic MI 49963

Keweenaw Now said...

Thanks for your comment, Jack!