Political Matters: Mining in the Penokee Hills
Monday, March 10 2014
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Mining in the Penokee Hills

I’ve devoted several recent “Political Matters” columns to the environmental threat posed by sulfide mining in northeastern Minnesota, the proposed PolyMet mine. This month, I’ll change things up and write about taconite mining. Specifically, Gogebic Taconite, LLC (GTAC) is considering developing what reportedly could become the largest open pit mine in North America.

GTAC’s big dig, just south of the Bad River reservation, would be 4.5 miles long, 1.5 mile wide and 1,000 feet deep. The Wisconsin DNR states that, if developed, “the project would likely include an open pit mining operation, a plant site and waste disposal facilities.”

The GTAC project, as you might imagine, has sparked controversy across northern Wisconsin. I talked recently with Cyrus Hester, an environmental specialist with the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa.

Hester brought me up to speed on various aspects of the GTAC project. The company is doing “mineral exploration using drill cores,” which has been approved by state officials. GTAC also recently received approval for “bulk sampling,” which means the excavation of between 2,100 to 10,000 tons of bedrock. This bulk samples would be excavated “from some sites that had been blasted by U.S. Steel,” in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“This is simply to look at the grindability of the rock, so that they can develop appropriate milling machinery for future taconite processing,” Hester explained.

He said that the bulk sampling could go on for “a couple weeks”; however, in mid-February, Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking the feds to stop GTAC from using large trucks to remove tons of rock samples from two sites in Iron County, according to a Wisconsin Public Radio report.

Bad River – along with the other northern Wisconsin bands, including Lac du Flambeau, Lac Courte Oreilles and Red Cliff – are monitoring the GTAC project, which is located within 1842 Treaty ceded territory; the Ojibwe bands have retained hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the area.

And the GTAC mine is “located entirely with the Bad River watershed,” Hester pointed out. Waters from the area feed into the Bad River, “which flows through the reservation, into the Bad River-Kakagon complex – this is a wetlands complex that was recognized under the Ramsar Convention as being of international significance … and then it continues on to Lake Superior.”

The Band River band “has another layer of involvement,” in Hester’s words, because it has implemented federally-approved water quality standards. And waters flowing out of the proposed GTAC mine “would have to comply with those standards that the tribe has set.”

And, like the situation in Minnesota, with the Fond du Lac band’s role in protecting wild rice waters, the Bad River reservation’s “coastal wetlands host the largest beds of wild rice in the Great Lakes,” according to Hester, a non-Indian who has been employed by the band for the past four years.

He said that his role as an environmental specialist at Bad River, vis-à-vis the proposed GTAC mine, has “become rather holistic, given that there’s a whole suite of changes in the environment that could affect the tribe’s natural resources.”

Hester said that generally his position involves protecting the tribe’s natural resources from degradation, both in the ceded territories and on-reservation; but “sometimes some projects are located in very difficult sites and there aren’t engineering solutions [to mitigate environmental harm], in which case we would recommend that a project not be permitted, if it can’t demonstrate the ability to comply with water quality standards, or otherwise impair the reservation environment.”

In 2013, Scott Walker, the Tea Party governor of the Dairy State, signed a mining bill (Chapter 295 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code) into law. I’ve read some commentary on this new law, and I asked Hester if 295 “gutted” environmental oversight.

“As a conservative scientist, that’s not the word I would use, but the gist is right, the gist is still on target,” he replied, and added that 295 made “significant changes from the existing regulations for metallic mining.”

In this regard, Hester noted that the GTAC project, although it’s ferrous (iron ore) mining, would likely dig up sulfide ore, too. “So some of the effects that you might get from a sulfide mine may be seen here as well,” he commented. “Certainly mining of this scale, regardless of whether or not it generates acid, can have significant impacts on the environment.”

As we concluded our phone chat, Hester also mentioned that grunerite, a mineral containing asbestos-like fibers, has been found around the Penokee mine site. GTAC previously had denied the presence of grunerite, which is linked to cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and pulmonary fibrosis (asbestosis).

This column just scratches the surface of the GTAC story.

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