Experts go afield to study Wisconsin mine’s impact
TOWN OF ANDERSON, Wis. — Sara Viernum scooped up a small frog as it jumped across a muddy Iron County logging road in a hilltop forest that could one day become the site of a massive open pit mine.
“They’re everywhere,” she said, smiling as she held a spring peeper in the palm of her hand. The tiny frog survives in winter in a near-frozen state until it emerges in spring.
Viernum, a specialist in amphibians and reptiles, is part of a small army of experts employed by the mine’s developers, Florida-based Gogebic Taconite. The group is conducting wide-ranging field studies this spring in a section of Iron and Ashland counties where the mine would be built.
They’re looking at the flora and the fauna, sizing up streams and wetlands and investigating rock deposits. The information will be part of a state Environmental Impact Statement that will give regulators and the public a sense of what exists in these remote woods — and what could be lost if the first iron ore mine in Wisconsin in more than 30 years is built.
Since the project was unveiled in November 2010, much of the debate has centered on conjecture and finger-pointing. But the fieldwork will supply research to help the state Department of Natural Resources decide whether the project complies with state environmental laws. Other agencies also will be involved in decision-making, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“What they’re doing is collecting environmental data — what’s there now,” said Larry Lynch, a hydrogeologist with the DNR who is overseeing the project for the agency.
“Our job will be to verify it,” he said.
DNR staff members are visiting the site almost every week and conducting their own research, including water sampling.
Former DNR Secretary George Meyer is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. He estimates that Gogebic will have to spend $10 million to $20 million on an acceptable mining application — figures the company did not dispute.
But in the early going, Gogebic has shown a lack of diligence, Meyer said. He noted that when the company needed approval to remove large rock samples, the DNR ordered Gogebic to provide more details.
Meyer said the company so far has not shown a lot of interest in satisfying state regulatory requirements.
Experts believe a final regulatory decision still is several years away, especially if environmental work can’t be completed in 2014. The likelihood of lawsuits also will delay the process.
What’s certain, however, is that Gogebic’s project has whipped up the biggest environmental fight in Wisconsin in decades.
First, there was a bitter legislative fight that eased iron-mining regulations. Also, opponents already have raised legal objections, even though the company hasn’t yet filed for a mining permit.
Protesters freely roamed the project site last summer, prompting at least one angry clash that resulted in the arrest of a woman on charges of criminal damage to property. Her case has not yet gone to trial. Vandalism has been a constant, the company says, and Gogebic representatives pointed to a bridge over a stream where someone last year tried to remove the bolts.
A camp near the mine site devoted to American Indian culture and a hub of mining opposition was ordered by the Iron County Board to leave county-owned land. The camp recently moved across the road to private land.
One couple spent the entire winter at the old site. Temperatures dipped to 38 degrees below zero, and snow was piled “waist deep to midgut,” mining opponent Larry Ackley said last week as he sipped coffee and plucked quills from a porcupine that had been hit by a car. He’s using the quills to adorn American Indian clothing.
Gogebic says it also has experienced vandalism this year, even though lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature approved rules restricting access to the site. Keyholes on locks on gates to the property have been glued shut, said company spokesman Bob Seitz. Someone also placed locks on Gogebic’s locks.
The company hired a security firm last summer that outfitted crews with assault weapons, but Seitz declined to detail the latest protection measures.
“We match up the security to what’s needed,” he said.
Gogebic is owned by billionaire Chris Cline, a coal mine operator. The company wants to construct two pits, up to 1,000 feet deep, that would run for 4 miles. A third area would be engineered to pile waste rock hundreds of feet high. A fourth site, a factory on Highway 77, would break up 300-pound chunks of rock and process the iron ore into taconite pellets.
Economic geologist Ralph Marsden studied the area for the U.S. Bureau of the Mines. In 1978, he described the Penokee deposit as “the largest in Wisconsin and one of the most important undeveloped iron ore reserves in the United States,” according to a DNR report released in December 2013.
Iron County Board Chairman Joe Pinardi said the mine would provide an economic boost to the region. In March, Hurley lost its only supermarket.
“Anyone who wants groceries has to go to Michigan,” said Pinardi, who also is mayor of Hurley, a community of 1,500.
Tim Myers, Gogebic’s mining engineer, said officials with the company believe the project will serve as a replacement for aging mines in Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula.
On a sunny day last week, Myers drove a four-wheel-drive vehicle over several miles of muddy, potholed roads, guiding it past fast-running streams and the last remnants of snow to the top of the Penokees. Near the summit is where Gogebic would begin digging to remove bands of iron ore that run 850 feet deep.
He stopped at a pile of rock that had been blasted in the early 1960s by U.S. Steel, a company that also had investigated the site. Myers ran his finger over black swirls of magnetite — a source of iron ore that looked much like core samples the company’s geologists are studying in town.
“That’s what we’ll be grinding for,” Myers said.
Concerns with deposits
There are two big concerns with the rock deposits.
The first is that the waste rock could contain sulfide minerals. The presence of the minerals could produce sulfuric acid and pollute water — a process known as acid mine drainage. The second is that the rock also could hold a fibrous material, asbestiform grunerite, whose airborne fibers are a health hazard.
Opponents say there is evidence of both, but Gogebic says its preliminary research from its core samples hasn’t turned up such problems. The company has drilled 22 holes as deep as 1,400 feet.
“Our opponents can just pick up a rock and say something,” Seitz said. “They jump to conclusions. What’s going up here is based on science.”
The DNR’s Lynch said the agency has examined core samples supplied by the company and has seen evidence of sulfide minerals, but the agency isn’t done with its analysis and hasn’t yet drawn any conclusions on the presence of asbestiform grunerite.
The rock samples are just one of the factors being scrutinized.
Last week, contractors for Gogebic with global positioning systems inventoried streams, so that they will be able to map every waterway on the property. Others were conducting bird migration studies and venturing into the woods at night to listen for owls.
Viernum and her partner Bill Poole were searching for places to conduct wildlife surveys when they found spring peepers and red-backed salamanders. They may find protected species, such as wood turtles, a state endangered species believed to be in the area. Any development must try to avoid contact with them.
“If they are there, a lot of what I do is try to figure out how to protect them and still allow whatever project there is to proceed,” said Poole, a wildlife ecologist who like Viernum works for Stantec Consulting Services Inc.
In a few weeks, crews will start mapping the locations of wetlands. The work on both wetlands and streams will be critical because, by law, Gogebic will be able to fill in some waters.
How those streams and wetlands are mapped could have a big influence on future DNR decision-making, Meyer said.
“That’s the whole ball game,” he said.
But Seitz said the company is barred from touching trout streams and many other waters. Gogebic will have to supply regulators with reports that will have to pass close scrutiny.
“We have a lot of eyes on us,” he said.