One of Wisconsin’s most beautiful and environmentally sensitive forest wildernesses is to be pierced with a four-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep gash in the Earth for an open-pit mine to produce deadly taconite. Out of state Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) is nearing approval – through a rigged kangaroo court environmental review process – to begin industrially destroying a 21,000-acre chunk of land in the remote forest highlands of northern Wisconsin called the Penokee Hills. The area is home to hardwood forests, rivers and streams, lakes, and wetlands. The land provides crucial habitat to wolves, bald eagles, songbirds, bears, and trout along with many rare plants such as the ram’s head lady slipper orchid. The Penokee Hills are also critical for clean water resources, characterized by a complex hydrology of surface and groundwater that flows into nearby Lake Superior (less than 20 miles away) and then through the Great Lakes.
In 2011, GTAC purchased the mineral rights for a vast area in the Penokee Hills; proposing to build the largest open-pit iron-ore mine in the world to extract taconite, a low-grade ore. Existing taconite mines are chronic polluters, routinely fined for serious air and water violations. Wisconsin’s water is under increasing threat with dead zones in the Green Bay, a recent and lingering drought in the project area, warming and much reduced water-levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, and a sand fracking boom ravaging the southwest’s land and water.
The ill-conceived Gogebic mining project poses an extreme risk of an industrial accident which could foul the Great Lakes, threatening 20% of Earth’s freshwater. The mine threatens the Bad River and Lake Superior watersheds, supported by over 200 inches of snow each year. The watershed is crisscrossed by complex flows from surface waters in lakes and rivers – including an unknown number of unmapped creeks – into groundwater, and then draining under pressure into the Great Lakes. The Kakagon and Bad River coastal wetland complex on Lake Superior are known as “Wisconsin’s Everglades.”
The proposed mine would extract taconite by removing about 650 feet of overburden on top of the ore. These “wastes” would be dumped in massive tailings piles at the headwaters of the Bad River watershed. With contaminants such as mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals, sulfates, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides being released from mining tailings dust, waste rock, ore transportation, and ore processing, the air and water quality in northern Wisconsin will become seriously degraded. Large tailings piles have the potential to generate acid rock drainage if sulfide minerals are present in the waste rock and are particularly prone to industrial accidents that could release massive discharges of toxic wastes into the Great Lakes.
GTAC is owned by Cline Resource and Development Group and has never mined taconite before. They have a checkered history of routine water quality standard violations with coal mines in Illinois and West Virginia. GTAC recently obtained permits from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to begin exploratory drilling at the proposed mine site. After protesters started camping there, and a few protesters participated in an incident in which minor property damage allegedly occurred, GTAC committed a felony by hiring an out-of-state, well-armed paramilitary to patrol the area and stifle lawful protest.
As Governor Walker’s political paymaster, GTAC successfully demanded to have environmental safeguards gutted, public input curtailed, revenues to local communities reduced, and the permit review process rushed. Essentially every environmental and public health protection related to regulating industrial mining’s well-known litany of environmental harms was eliminated. Gov. Walker signed the mining giveaway bill in March which created a separate set of laws for taconite mining, allowing the dumping of mine waste directly into wetlands and waterways. Mining revenues that previously went to local communities now go into the state's Economic Development Corporation, a problem-plagued slush fund Walker created.
No mine in metallic sulfides has been safely operated and closed without polluting the environment. Mining companies in Minnesota have faced serious issues with getting rid of the wastewater from taconite mining plants, as wastewater released into waterways around mining facilities devastates surrounding aquatic environments. Previous taconite mines in Minnesota and Michigan created classic “boom and bust” mining economies, providing a couple decades of jobs and then leaving a denuded, toxic landscape. The companies become the primary source for employment and revenue in an area, driving down wages overall, and leave a permanent economic depression and ecological destruction in their wake.
The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa native peoples strongly oppose mining in the Penokee Hills. These intact forest ecosystems are the source for the nation’s sacred water and are critical for traditional wild rice harvest. Local communities would be most affected by the blasting, toxic dust, storm water drainage, and water contamination sure to result from the project. Mike Wiggins Jr. – chairman of the Bad River Band – is urging nonviolent opposition to the iron ore mine. A large protest camp continues on native lands near the proposed mine, though the Republican-dominated legislature is seeking to outlaw protest of any type.
Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources will be determining the environmental impacts of the project and must be called upon to maintain their scientific credibility, after years of political interference from Governor Walker. At recent token public input sessions, the ratio was about ten to one against allowing GTAC to begin bulk sampling, yet the mine will almost certainly be approved after a mock review process. Shockingly, the DNR doesn’t require an environmental impact statement for this massive mine. A decision by the DNR on bulk sampling, which would begin the destruction, is expected shortly and will almost certainly lead to full-scale mining.
Gov. Walker seeks a short-term unsustainable boost to Wisconsin’s economy from wholesale environmental destruction to hide his profound failure to lead on creating a sustainable economy and to bolster his presumed run for President. In the Penokee Hills, Walker continues his pattern since youth of authoritarian behavior at the expense of others to further his own political ambitions. The GTAC mine sinks to a new low for a man who gutted public unions days after being elected (despite not having run on the issue), continues to arrest peaceful protest singers, turned down high-speed rail, and dismantled the state’s renewable energy economy. Walker is a dangerous man who has obliterated the state’s long bipartisan Progressive tradition of environmental protection – allowing out-of-state corporate political backers to devastate Wisconsin’s forest landscapes and waterways, while risking extreme damage to the Great Lakes – to feed his self-aggrandizing ego. Walker must be stopped from amassing further power, starting in Wisconsin’s north woods, or we and our posterity shall all pay dearly.
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