Much of the debate over what could happen if an iron ore mine becomes part of northern Wisconsin’s landscape is happening in an information vacuum, say state environmental and geological experts.
Gogebic Taconite never performed experimental drilling necessary to determine how much waste rock will be left behind when iron ore is removed. It’s impossible without those tests to know exactly what is under the earth’s surface, Philip
Fauble, mining coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said.
The type of waste rock, chemicals used to process the rock and other issues can vary widely from one location to another. Some waste rock can react with oxygen and water over time, producing acidic chemicals. Grinding rock into a fine powder and extracting iron ore can require more storage space.
“It gets to proper management,” Fauble said. “These wastes can have an adverse effect . . . the key is figuring out how to manage these and either reduce or eliminate that potential.”
Wisconsin’s permitting process, still intact after the Senate blocked changes from passing this spring, “does not work on the basis of what we think might happen,” Tom Evans, assistant director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, said.
“The key point of the regulatory process is that responsible mining is OK,” Evans said. “But we’re also saying we know this activity poses specific concerns to everyone in the state, not just the immediate land owner or owners downstream.”
All the talk remains just talk until a mining company, supporters and opponents reach a key step of the permitting process. Dubbed a master hearing, the process is split into two parts: public comments and a formal hearing requiring witnesses to take a legal oath and answer questions from other parties.
Jurgen Brune, a research professor at the Colorado School of Mines, said it’s typical for interests to clash at the start of a mining project, especially in a state that hasn’t been mined for a long period of time as in Wisconsin.
“I think the key thing is, if northern Wisconsin has high unemployment and not much infrastructure, a mining company can bring change to that,” Brune said. “But it needs to be done with wisdom, that we can’t just let a mining company do everything they want, on their terms.”
State lawmakers should become mediators, he said, negotiating a solution that addresses environmental concerns but also makes the job a smart business decision for mining companies.
Evans said he sympathizes with mining companies’ complaints about the uncertain timeline to receive permits in Wisconsin, and DNR officials have expressed their own regrets for previous projects that fell through.
But Evans believes lawmakers and the mining industry overreached when they included language allowing mining companies to pile waste rock in or near waterways. The bill also barred DNR officials from denying a permit if the engineering and environmental information provided by a mining company was sub-par, an “absurd” change, Evans said.
He also disagrees with a separate chapter in state law for iron mine permitting, portraying those mines as simpler than others.
“The process in Wisconsin requires you to evaluate a project as proposed,” he said. “By creating this whole new structure for iron mining, it goes to threatening the reasonable environmental protection we’re used to under Wisconsin law.”