• WisBusiness

Thursday, July 14, 2011

It's not your grandfather's iron mine: How the Gogebic mine fits northern Wisconsin

By Tom Still
Name the industry in which you would expect to find the following science and technology professionals: Chemical engineers, computer programmers, computer systems analysts, electrical engineers, environmental scientists, geochemists, geo-engineers, geophysicists, drafting technologists, metallurgical engineers and quality control engineers.

If you answered "mining," you would be correct. Unfortunately, you won't find those jobs anytime soon in Wisconsin unless the state injects more certainty into its laws governing the construction and operation of open-pit mines.

A proposal to mine iron ore in northern Wisconsin's Gogebic range is on hold until the Legislature can review state laws that mining proponents say are open-ended and which invite unreasonable delay – even if mines meet federal and state environmental standards.

Gogebic Taconite holds an option on mineral rights for 22,000 acres covering 22 miles of a mountain range known as the Gogebic, or Penokee, that runs through northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Mining could begin within five years in a 4.5-mile stretch between Mellen and Upson, an area that straddles Wisconsin's Ashland and Iron counties, but only if the state lends more certainty to the permitting process.

On the surface, the dispute appears to be a classic debate between people who want economic growth and those who worry about harming the environment. But this debate is unlike mining disputes in other locations, including Wisconsin's long-dormant Crandon mine proposal, for some pertinent scientific reasons.

The Gogebic mine would be an iron oxide mine, extracting iron ore using water and magnets, and not a sulfide mine, which uses separating chemicals that can produce long-lasting environmental damage. "Sulfide mining extracts copper, nickel, and other metals from sulfide ores. The environmental risks are much different from traditional iron ore mining. Here's just one reason why: when rain falls on the waste from iron mining, it makes rust; when rain falls on sulfide ore waste, sulfuric acid is produced."

That's not from corporate mining interests, but from the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota, a state that has learned to safely and profitably extract iron ore.

That's not to say all iron mines are automatically safe, but they can be responsibly managed within known parameters using the latest technologies. For example, recycling and processing techniques can discharge water that won't harm downstream fisheries, wild rice beds and other natural areas. Early indications show that waste rock from the Gogebic mine would not include high sulfide levels that could endanger water quality, although further tests are needed to confirm that geologic fact.

At stake: Perhaps the largest economic development opportunity to hit northern Wisconsin in a century.

The mine would create 700 direct mining jobs and stimulate 2,800 other jobs in a 12-county region, generating $604 million per year for the regional economy, according to a report by Madison-based NorthStar Economics Inc.

Average pay and benefits would total nearly $83,000 per year, the range for similar mines in Minnesota and Michigan, with a total mine payroll of $58 million per year. The first phase of the mine could generate $17.2 million per year in state and local tax revenues. Construction of the mine, which would cost $1.5 billion, would support 3,175 jobs over two years.

Because it holds one of the largest known iron reserves in the world, the mine could operate at least 35 years and perhaps much longer.

It adds up to a vital boost for a region where the population is poorer, older and less educated than people in Wisconsin as a whole. Median household income in Iron County, for example, is 32 percent below the statewide average. One quarter of the population is 65 and older compared to 14 percent statewide. About 15 percent of the people in Iron County hold a college degree, compared to 25.7 percent statewide.

The boom would extend to other sectors, ranging from restaurants and trucking services to the railroad industry, construction, hospitals and retail stores. Because a surprising number of mining jobs are scientific or technical in nature, the region would stand a better chance of stimulating spin-off businesses or attracting other professionals.

Some lawmakers believed the mining law revisions proposed in the spring were rushed, but the Legislature should have ample time to reasonably assess those regulations by the fall. Environmental excellence and job creation need not be mutually exclusive goals, especially in a state with the expertise to accomplish both.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Comments: 4

At July 18, 2011 at 9:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure how many lies in the above article I can point out, but here goes:

"Unreasonable delay" means, the mines would not get to have carte blanche in polluting our land, water air and communities. This lie is meant to have you believe that by making sure the mine is operating cleanly and environmentally won't destroy our neighborhood for our great great grandkids, we are somehow putting WI in economic trouble. If anything we are saving the resources especially the water, for us and future generations. That mining companies can't see that means to me they don't care about such things and are all about bottom line. 35 years while they pollute the water forever is not a good reason to have jobs.

What the article does not state is that the new mining legislation was written by the mining companies, deregulates to the point of danger, removed any recourse for citizens, when the polluting begins as it has for so many mines in the world, Wisconsin will be left to pay for it, much like the taxpayers are now paying for the Gulf clean up. Also, the new legislation removes the right for citizens to sue the mines for their destruction.

What is also not listed is the fact that the mines are still polluting Flambeau Mine even as we write. The Flambeau river is being innundated with toxic chemicals, and the law suit against them is still on going.

What is also not represented here is that Ron Johnson has a personal interest in mining in this state, and is representing not the people but the corporations.

So please, read this piece as a bit of PR for the mines, not fact, not truth and certainly not what is good for Wisconsin. Also educate yourselves on Cline Mining miserable record all over the world of leaving a trail of toxic pollution and no responsiblity for clean up wherever they go.

Are a slight 35 years worth of jobs worth pollution of Lake Superior, killing fish birds the tourist industry and our communities? Hardly. We are more creative and can find new economic ways if we had the support of our government. But they have sold out to big mines.

Lastly, if the mines try to come in here, they will face a HUGE groundswell of resistance as we stand to say No.

At July 18, 2011 at 9:51 AM, Blogger xoff said...

It wasn't just the rushed attempt to push through a secret bill draft that no one but WMC and the mining companies had seen that has people alarmed. It is a radical proposal that shortens approval time for mines to less than a year, eliminates or weakens many of the environmental safeguards, and greatly limits public input. A mine that could cover more than 80 square miles and operate for 100 years needs more than a quick rubber stamp of approval.

At July 18, 2011 at 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also don't believe for a minute his "facts" about sulfide mining in MN. They are now paying hugely for these lies over there.

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