Al Gedick's 

Fast-Tracking the Mine Permit Process

Al Gedicks teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and is the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.

            Should the state’s regulatory authority over the metallic mine permitting process be dramatically reduced to accommodate the wishes of a mining company to receive a permit in record time? This is not a hypothetical question. Gogebic Taconite  (G-Tac) has met with several legislators about its proposed open pit iron ore (taconite) mine along the border of Ashland and Iron Counties to push legislation that would drastically speed up the mine permitting process.  The present review process, which was the result of hard-fought environmental battles in the 1970s, can take several years, depending upon the complexity of the mine plan and the potential environmental impacts of the project.  However, Senator Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee) is proposing legislation that would reduce this review to 300 days. G-Tac President Bill Williams told a reporter that his company may abandon its plans for a $1.5 billion taconite mine and processing plant if the process takes too long (

            Ever since a grassroots Indian and environmental alliance defeated a proposal to build a metallic sulfide mine at Crandon, Wisconsin, the international mining industry has considered the state among the least favorable places for mining investment. In 1998 the state passed the Mining Moratorium Law which requires that before the state can issue a mining permit for the mining of sulfide ore bodies, potential miners must provide an example of where a metallic sulfide mine in the U.S. or Canada has not polluted surface and groundwaters during or after mining. In 2003, the Sokaogon Chippewa and the Forest County Potawatomi Tribes bought the Crandon mine property for $16.5 million and ended a 28 year conflict over the mine.

            G-Tac now wants to turn back the clock on environmental protection and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. Gogebic Taconite is a limited liability company registered on the Toronto Stock Exchange and owned by the Cline Group, a coal mining company based in Florida.  Christopher Cline is a billionaire who owns large coal reserves in Illinois and Northern Appalachia and has been called the “New King Coal”. If G-Tac has its way, local citizens and the Bad River Chippewa Tribe, who will be most directly affected by the proposed mine, will have little opportunity to participate in a thorough review of the social, economic and environmental impacts of the project. What information might be disclosed during a mine permit review process that would be so threatening to G-Tac?

 Bad River Chippewa Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr., is concerned that this mine could discharge polluted water to the Bad River watershed and the tribe’s wild rice beds in the Kakagon Sloughs, a 16,000-acre complex of wetlands, woodlands and sand dune ecosystems that is one of the largest freshwater estuaries in the world. Wild rice is a sacred plant for the Chippewa and is very sensitive to water contamination as well as fluctuations in water levels. Dewatering operations at the proposed mine could lower the water table around the mine. It was the effort to protect the Sokaogon Chippewa’s wild rice beds that propelled the Crandon mine conflict.

The proposed mine involves extracting taconite by removing about 650 feet of overburden and creating a narrow pit around 4 miles long, up to 900 feet deep and a quarter mile wide. The overburden would be dumped in massive tailings piles along the northwest side of the Penokee-Gogebic Range and at the headwaters of the Bad River Watershed. These large tailings piles have the potential to generate acid rock drainage if sulfide minerals are present in the waste rock. These issues need to be evaluated in a fair and open environmental review process where the public and the Lake Superior Chippewa Bands have the opportunity to have full disclosure of the potential impacts of the project. Legislation that would reduce the review process to 300 days would severely limit full disclosure of these impacts and be in direct violation of both state environmental law and treaties with the Lake Superior Chippewa Bands.

Senator Zipperer has expressed his desire to have this legislation passed before the end of the present legislative session on June 30. Why is this legislation being fast-tracked?  If passed, this legislation will effectively exclude Wisconsin citizens and tribes from having a voice in one of  the most far reaching environmental decisions facing northern Wisconsin communities.