Unjustified technological optimism led to BP’s
The water that flows off the iron-rich Penokee Hills feeds the Penokee aquifer and the
The company has invested in a massive public relations offensive with radio ads proclaiming that such mining can be done safely for generations while protecting the environment. Even worse, this same company has been crafting legislation that would prevent the public and the state’s Indian Nations from challenging any of these claims by excluding them from participation in the mine permitting process. Secrecy is the hallmark of this ill-conceived legislation, with total disregard for public knowledge and input, fundamental water conservation principles, safety and indigenous rights. Local government input would also be limited. This is a recipe for another technological disaster.
Soaring demand for steel, copper and nickel in the rapidly industrializing economies of
Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) has leases for the mineral rights on 22,000 acres of the
With a projected investment of $1.5 billion, GTAC executives wanted to minimize the political risk of the project. The greatest political vulnerability is organized opposition at the earliest stage of the project. Accurate, reliable information about the social, economic and environmental impacts of taconite mining is likely to fuel the opposition. They were also worried that
The Iron Mining Law, drafted with the assistance of mining industry consultants, would drastically speed up the mine permitting process by denying the public and Indian Nations their right to be informed about the social, economic and environmental impacts of mining projects and to participate in the decision making process through contested case hearings and local impact committees.
What’s the Big Rush?
State Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar), whose district encompasses the proposed mine, was outraged when he learned that mining proponents were attempting to rush the Iron Mining bill (re-named the “Jobs for Generations Act”) through the legislature. “It is an absolute insult for Senator Hopper to schedule a bill that hasn’t even been released to the public. The mining company has been privately writing this legislation for five months. It is only a matter of common decency that the chair gives the public more than five days to review the bill. I am still in the process of trying to understand what the 186-page bill does,” said Jauch. “In five words, I think it means ‘give us what we want.’”
Several of the state’s environmental groups, including the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, Clean Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club successfully mobilized their membership to force the cancellation of the hearing. The bill has been rewritten, but is still unavailable to the public as of this writing.
The legislation comes as a complete surprise to the communities most likely to be affected by the proposed mining. At a public forum in
Under the provisions of this bill (LRB 2035), which only applies to iron mining, the mining company will no longer be required to do a risk assessment of accidental health and environmental hazards associated with the mining operation. Existing water quality standards that protect water in the
Just in case the authors of the bill may have overlooked some potential environmental obstacle, the bill states that, “If there is a conflict between a provision in the iron mining laws and a provision in another state environmental law, the provision in the iron mining law controls.” In other words, the Iron Mining Law proclaims that the expansion of the mining industry is the official policy of the state and all other considerations are subordinate to mining.
The Cline Group of Companies
The major reason for this assault on environmental protection and indigenous rights is to accommodate the wishes of a mining company to receive a mining permit in record time. GTAC President Bill Williams told a reporter that his company may abandon the project if the process takes too long.
GTAC is a limited liability company registered on the Toronto Stock Exchange and owned by the privately held Cline Group, a coal mining company based in
Senator Zipperer, co-sponsor of the bill, says that mining companies need to be assured that they will get their permits at the end of the process: “The main problem they have is uncertainty. I think the current statute is, in effect, a mining moratorium in this state.” The current Mining Moratorium Law does not ban mining. It simply requires that before the state can issue a permit for mining of sulfide ore bodies, potential miners must provide an example of where a metallic sulfide mine in the
The mining industry has not been able to find a single example where they have mined without polluting surface and groundwaters, including the recently closed (1997) Flambeau copper sulfide mine in
GTAC published an open letter to the people of
A Threat to Water and Health
The process of extracting taconite from the host rocks requires large amounts of water and leaves behind vast amounts of waste rock called tailings. These large tailings piles have the potential to generate acid rock drainage if sulfide minerals are present in the waste rock. Matt Fifield, managing director of GTAC told a reporter that, “We have no expectations of making acid mine drainage.” If sulfide minerals are present in the host rock, there will always be the possibility of acid mine drainage. Does Fifield really believe that GTAC is exempt from natural law? In
One of the early victories of the environmental movement was the successful prosecution of the Reserve Mining Company for dumping taconite tailings into
The Minnesota Health Department has confirmed 58 taconite miners have died of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, since 2003. Researchers concluded that commercial asbestos was the likely cause of the mesothelioma though it didn’t rule out taconite dust as a factor. Some scientists have suspected that exposure to asbestos might be from inhaling asbestos-like fibers in the taconite production plants or from contaminated taconite rocks.
According to Mary Manning, the director of health promotion and chronic disease at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), “Those fragments get into the air and there’s been questions over the years about what the health effects associated with those mineral fragments are.” After the MDH was criticized for withholding data from the public about a dozen confirmed cases of mesothelioma among
Ignoring Indigenous Rights
Beginning in the 1890s and continuing for the next 50 years or so, the iron mines of
The investment decisions of U.S. Steel and Hanna Mining threw an entire regional economy based on mining into a severe economic depression. The last iron ore mined in
Will this boom-bust cycle produce different results this time around?
To protect their wild rice beds the tribe has applied to the EPA for authority under the Clean Water Act to enforce tribal water quality standards on the reservation. It was the Mole Lake Ojibwe’s assertion of tribal water regulatory authority that was one of the major turning points in the successful resistance to the Crandon mine project. “Water and water levels are non-negotiable,” said Wiggins. “They are for our survival.”
Economic Engine or Resource Curse?
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) is the state’s largest business lobbying group, representing some of the world’s largest mining equipment companies like Joy Global and Bucyrus International, located in southeastern
We’ve heard this story before—mining as an engine of growth. Just look at the poverty in Appalachia (coal), the Ozarks (lead), the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (iron and copper) or
Modern mineral mining is very machinery-intensive, creating far fewer jobs than promised. The most competitive mines extract more minerals with fewer workers. Rio Tinto’s iron ore mines in the Pilbara region of
If GTAC’s job projections are overstated, they completely ignore the impact of the proposed mine on existing jobs in tourism, forestry, the Lake Superior fishery and the subsistence economies of the Lake Superior Ojibwe tribes that have treaty-protected harvest rights in the ceded territories of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.
On June 9, 2011, environmental activists and organizations gathered at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at
Al Gedicks teaches sociology at the