Local view: Science and facts show a need for tight regulation of taconite mining
By Al Gedicks and Dave Blouin
Duluth News Tribune
How is it possible that the Wisconsin legislature is ready to pass legislation to create fast-tracked, less-protective ferrous (iron) mining laws for what promises be the largest open-pit iron mine in the world with no scientific evidence to justify treating iron mining differently than other metallic mining?
If Gogebic Taconite proceeds with a proposal, its first phase of mining alone would be larger than the acknowledged largest iron mine in the world, the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine in Hibbing. The taconite ore body in northern Wisconsin is known to run 22 miles, meaning the expansion of mining after phase one could result in an even larger mine with more potential to destroy rivers, streams, wetlands and groundwater.
The main proponents of an iron mining bill in Wisconsin — including Gogebic Taconite, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Mining Association — have misled legislators with claims that the iron ore in Ashland and Iron counties is more environmentally safe compared to metallic sulfide mining and thus requires separate regulations.
Mining proponents claim taconite ores do not contain sulfide minerals such as pyrite, which can produce acid mine drainage and poison local water supplies with dissolved toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead. This claim is false. The Wisconsin Geological Survey reported as long ago as 1929 that pyrite is associated with the ore and waste rock. The United States Geological Survey reported the same thing in 2009. Huge amounts of sulfide-bearing minerals must be extracted to get to the deposit and would be discarded as waste.
Gogebic Taconite has yet to release information on the geochemical content of the ore it hopes to mine. Mike Wiggins, tribal chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, recently called on Gogebic Taconite to release this information so we can publicly discuss whether the projected 910 million tons of waste over
35 years of phase one, stored at the headwaters of the Bad River watershed, could produce the same acid mine drainage that resulted in fish advisories for mercury and a wild rice dead zone for 100 miles downstream from Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range in the St. Louis River watershed.
While proponents claim taconite mining in neighboring Minnesota and Michigan has clean track records, the facts suggest otherwise. A survey of compliance records from 2004 to 2012 for taconite mines and related production facilities in Minnesota and Michigan shows all 10 modern taconite mines and processors are chronic polluters with fines and stipulations of more than $2.1 million (see wisconsin.sierraclub.org/
PenokeeMine.asp). A Minnesota DNR report in 2003 found taconite mining to be the second-largest source of mercury emissions after coal power plants. The study also reported that no suitable technology has been found to curtail taconite mercury emissions.
Gogebic Taconite’s claim that ferrous (iron) mining should be regulated separately seems based on an artificial distinction without scientific merit. Legislators who voted in support had to have been deliberately misled by Gogebic Taconite, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Mining Association about the safety of taconite mining. Their votes had to have been based on unproven mining industry rhetoric over scientific fact.
The failure to admit the presence of sulfide minerals in the waste rock also has reinforced an attitude among some legislators that the concerns of the Bad River Band do not have to be taken into account in the legislative debate. These legislators need to be reminded that the treaties between the Lake Superior Chippewa and the federal government affirm tribal rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice in the ceded territory of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. The Bad River Band also has sovereign authority, under the Clean Water Act, to protect its wild rice from mining pollution. Legislation that conflicts with the treaties or the tribe’s sovereign authority will be subject to lengthy court challenges and grassroots resistance from an Indian, environmental, sport-fishing and conservation alliance that defeated the Crandon mine in 2003.
Al Gedicks of La Crosse, Wis., is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the author of “Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.” Dave Blouin of Madison is the Mining Committee chairman for the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter of Wisconsin and is co-founder of the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin.