Gogebic Taconite Mine Project

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Question: Why was this mining project so controversial? Why was there allure for the project? What ultimately caused its shutdown?

The Goegebic Taconite Mine Project was a proposed mining project by Gogebic Taconite, LLC. in Ashland and Iron County, Wisconsin. The $1.5 billion project would create 700 jobs at the mine, as well as 2,800 spin off jobs in the local areas towns. The mine was popular among Wisconsin Republicans, mainly Governor Scott Walker, because of the mine's potential to ignite counties that had some of the worst unemployment rates in the state. On the other hand, the project was also met with stiff opposition due to the adverse impact the mine's waste would have on the local water supply. Eventually, Gogebic Taconite, LLC. could not find an economically viable solution to the environmental hazards and closed their Hurley office in February 2015. The forfeited project has left many to wonder if a new, better-suited company will step in and attempt to open a ecofriendly mine that will satisfy all parties.


Penokee-Gogebic Range

The reason why the Penokee-Gogebic Range is so attractive to potential mining companies is because it has a geological composition and history that is one of a kind among iron ranges. The range receives it name from the iron-rich rock, referred to as the Ironwood Iron Formation, that stretches 75-miles from Michigan's Upper Peninsula Lake Gogebic on the north end to Grand View, Wisconsin on the south end. Due to the iron compositions of the range, it has increased resistance to erosion compared to its surrounding rocks which is why it has a slightly higher elevation topographically.[1]

The formation of the Ironwood began just short of 2 billion years ago. During that time, algae were just beginning the process of photosynthesis, thus slightly raising the level of oxygen in oceans that were rich in carbon dioxide and deprived of oxygen. The presence of oxygen allowed dissolving iron to form iron oxides like hematite and magnetite when precipitating out of the water. Both of these iron oxide minerals are the very rocks found in today's Ironwood belt. These iron deposits settled at the ocean floor for millions of years until what scientists believe to be a meteorite impact in Ontario disturbed the settling of minerals to the ocean floor due to the presence of tsunamis. Evidence of this can be found at iron formations surrounding Lake Superior by a broken top layer of rock that depicts shock waves cause by tsunamis. [2]

Prior Mining

The iron in the Ironwood belt attracted miners because they contained mostly magnetite: a mineral that is composed of about sixty percent iron. From 1877 to 1967, about forty mines worked the Ironwood Formation because of the enormous economic impact the resource had. During these ninety years, around 325 million tons of the iron ore were mined from the Penokee-Gogebic Range. What makes the Ironwood iron ore economically viable is because it can be mined, ship, and fed to smelting furnaces without any additional processing (also referred to as natural ores). The natural ore eventual became too scare to remain economically viable, so the remaining mines were abandoned. [3]

Taconite

Taconite is the largest iron ore that is economically viable to mine in the Penokee-Gogebic Range. This ore formerly was not economically viable based on its lower composition of iron compared to magnetite. However, mining practices and technology over the last few decades around the Lake Superior region have made taconite mining economically viable. First, explosives are used to blast taconite rocks into smaller pieces. Electric shovels capable of carrying 85 tons of rocks are used to scoop up the blasted rocks. They are transported by dump trucks, capable of hauling up to 240 tons, to either a processing plant. At the plant, the taconite is crush into even smaller pieces, mixed with water, and ground down into a fine powder. A large magnet is used to separate the iron from the taconite. The wet iron is combined with clay and rolled into hard pellets while the remaining crushed rocks are considered waste and disposed of in tailing basins. From here, the processing of taconite iron pellets is complete, so they are loaded onto large ships and sent down the Great Lakes to steel mills in Ohio, Indiana, and Pittsburgh. [4]

Mining Proposal

The proposed $1.5 billion plan put forth by Gogebic Taconite, LLC. was introduced in phases. The first phase was the four mile long, approximately 600 feet deep, and 1,600 feet wide open mining pit. This open pit would have become the largest topographical feature in the entire state of Wisconsin. With a project this size, there were plenty of advocates and opponents to the project. [5] However, state environmental regulations and mining laws, mainly laws that require intense studies to measure potential environmental impact, were hurdles that had to be cleared before beginning tests for the mining site.

Political Support

Among those who supported the mining project was Governor Scott Walker. With a heavy attempt to improve the state's economy, the taconite mining project was a perfect way to improve Northern Wisconsin. Gogebic Taconite, LLC. donated $700,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a group that is known to support Governor Walker and is even directed by one of the governor's campaign advisers. Gogebic claims the funds represented a mutual interest in mining between the two groups; however, many view the contributions as lobby attempts to gain support for a bill to relax mining regulations. Whatever the case may be, state Republicans were able to pass a bill that relaxed mining regulations in 2012 paving the way for Gogebic Taconite to begin testing at the Penokee Range. [6]

Iron County has the second highest unemployment rate in the state (9%) which is double the state average. The median income is also 29% lower than the state average, showing how underwhelming the economic activity is in the county. The proposed mine would operate for 35 years, provide around 700 direct jobs to operate the mine, and it would create about 2,800 spin-off jobs in the local area for housing, small business, and transportation. The mine would inject much-needed economic activity to a section of the state that desperately requires it. [7]

Controversy

The same environmental hurdles that Gogbeic Taconite had to clear are the same reasons why controversy revolved around the project. Opponents of the project have proclaimed their concerns of how the mine will harm the environment. Based on where the range is located, most of the concerns were on the possible water pollution from the mining process.

Water Runoff

The proposed mining site has seventy-one miles of rivers and streams that flow through it. This water flows into the larger Bad River and eventually empties into Lake Superior. [8] There are small amounts of pyrite, or iron sulfide, in some of these iron minerals. The presence of pyrite in the tailing basins can come into contact with the Earth's groundwater and undergo chemical reactions creating sulfuric acid.[9] The extensive river system around the Penokee Range multiplies the number of parties potentially impacted.

Human Impact

The most concerning element of the mine would be the sulfuric acid in the groundwater consumed by inhabitant in Ashland and Iron county. The Bad, Potato, and Tyler Forks Rivers are used primarily for drinking water in the towns of Ashland, Mellen, Highbridge, Marengo, Upson, and Odanah. These rivers are also among the highest water quality rivers in the state. Therefore, these rivers are the source of many outdoor activities like swimming, rafting, fishing, and canoeing.[10] These activities are culminated at Copper Falls State Park just outside of Mellen where the Tyler Forks connects to the Bad River. Iron water pollution from the iron mine has the potential to impact the resourcefulness of the river system for the area's inhabitants for decades.

Wetlands Impact

Similarly to humans, the wildlife that depends on the area's wetland also have the potential to be harmed by the mine. The 16,000-acre Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs is the largest undeveloped wetland complex in the Upper Great Lakes area. The water for the sloughs are provided by the runoff of the Penokee-Gogebic Range. There are many endangered and threatened species that call these wetlands home such as the bald eagle, wood turtle, piping plover, and trumpeter swan. Water pollution would greatly threaten the endangered species in the area that need human protection to survive; moreover, the many other non endangered species like deer and fish would also see their numbers greatly decrease from polluted wetlands. [11]

Future Development

On March 24, 2015, Gogebic Taconite LLC withdrew their preapplication from the DNR for the proposed taconite mine. This was just after they closed their base office in Hurley, Wisconsin conceding to the fact that the expenses needed to make the project environmentally safe was not economically viable. The land immediately became opened to the public after it was closed by Managed Forest Law (MFL).[12] However, due to the size of the iron belt, there is a potential for other interested mining companies to step in and attempted to open the mine. Iron County board members have made it clear that they are willing to accept field the interests the better suited mining companies to open the mine. Unfortunately, the controversy created by Gogebic Taconite's proposal has left a scar on the topic of a potential mine throughout the state. Any new company entering the debate will have to prove beyond any doubt that a mining project will not harm those dependent on the water in Ashland and Iron county.[13]

References

  1. "Ironwood: The Rocks of the Penokee Range," Wisconsin Academy, Published Spring 2012, https://www.wisconsinacademy.org/magazine/ironwood-rocks-penokee-range.
  2. "Ironwood: The Rocks of the Penokee Range,"Wisconsin Academy, Published Spring 2012, https://www.wisconsinacademy.org/magazine/ironwood-rocks-penokee-range.
  3. "Ironwood: The Rocks of the Penokee Range,"Wisconsin Academy, Published Spring 2012, https://www.wisconsinacademy.org/magazine/ironwood-rocks-penokee-range.
  4. "Iron Range 101: What is Taconite," TC Daily Planet, Published 2011-09-18, https://www.tcdailyplanet.net/iron-range-101-what-taconite/
  5. "Ironwood: The Rocks of the Penokee Range,"Wisconsin Academy, Published Spring 2012, https://www.wisconsinacademy.org/magazine/ironwood-rocks-penokee-range.
  6. Mining company, allies spent freely to get bill approved," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Published 2014-09-01, http://archive.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/mining-company-allies-spent-freely-to-get-bill-approved-mining-company-allies-spent-freely-to-get--b-273488581.html/
  7. Mining company, allies spent freely to get bill approved," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Published 2014-09-01, http://archive.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/mining-company-allies-spent-freely-to-get-bill-approved-mining-company-allies-spent-freely-to-get--b-273488581.html/
  8. "Mining in the Penokee Range: What's at risk," The Nature Conservancy, Accessed 2017-12-05, https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/wisconsin/mining-in-the-penokee-gogebic-range-whats-at-risk.xml
  9. "Ironwood: The Rocks of the Penokee Range,"
  10. "Mining in the Penokee Range: What's at risk,"The Nature Conservancy, Accessed 2017-12-05, https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/wisconsin/mining-in-the-penokee-gogebic-range-whats-at-risk.xml
  11. "Mining in the Penokee Range: What's at risk,"The Nature Conservancy, Accessed 2017-12-05, https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/wisconsin/mining-in-the-penokee-gogebic-range-whats-at-risk.xml
  12. "Gogebic Taconite, LLC, potential mining project," Department of Natural Resources Wisconsin, Revised 2017-02-14, http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/mines/gogebic.html
  13. "Gogebic Taconite gone, but Iron County is told new mine operator may appear," Wisconsin State Journal, Published 2015-08-03, http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/environment/gogebic-taconite-gone-but-iron-county-is-told-new-mine/article_e4483202-3c94-52b3-8aeb-a31ca4518308.html


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