New Wisconsin iron mining bill will be devastating to the environment 01.22.13

New Wisconsin iron mining bill will be devastating to the environment

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) should be paying Isthmuscontributor Larry Kaufmann for his able job of parroting their misleading talking points on the new mining bill introduced last week by GOP mining cheerleaders. The "new" version of AB 426, the Strip Mine Giveaway Bill (AB 1/SB 1), is essentially the same bill from last session. A new network of more than 80 state, regional and national organizations immediately asked legislators to reject this extreme legislation that guts state mining laws for one company's destructive proposal.

The legislation will create a streamlined, less protective ferrous (iron) mining regulatory program for what will be the largest open pit iron mine in the world, based on no scientific evidence to justify treating iron mining different than other metallic mining. If Gogebic Taconite (GTac) proceeds with their proposal, Phase 1 alone would be larger than the acknowledged largest taconite (iron) mine in the world, the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine in Hibbing, Minnesota. The taconite ore body here runs 22 miles in length, meaning that the expansion of mining after Phase 1 could result in an even larger mine with additional impacts on rivers, streams, wetlands and groundwater.

Over 900 million tons of wastes and tailings (over 35 years of Phase 1) will be dumped in the wetlands and streams of the Bad River watershed, and could produce the same acid mine drainage that has resulted in fish advisories for mercury and a wild rice dead zone for 100 miles downstream from Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range in the St. Louis River watershed.

The main proponents of the bill, including GTac, WMC and the Wisconsin Mining Association (WMA), have consistently misled legislators with claims that the iron ore in Ashland and Iron counties is more environmentally safe compared to metallic sulfide mining and thus requires separate regulations. They claim that since this is an oxide ore and not a sulfide ore, it can't produce acid mine drainage and poison local water supplies with dissolved toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead.

Science proves mining proponents are making a false claim. Oxide ores can contain the same sulfide materials (pyrite) that cause acid mine drainage. The Wisconsin Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey have reported that pyrite is associated with the ore and waste rock in 1929 and 2008, respectively. Independent geological studies have confirmed that there are significant sulfides in pyrite in the waste rock adjacent to the ore. The independent geologists estimate that just one cubic kilometer of the waste rock could contain the pyrite equivalent of 10 billion gallons of sulfuric acid of car battery strength.

In other words, GTac's claim that ferrous mining should be regulated separately is based on an artificial distinction without scientific merit. Legislators who voted for AB 426 were deliberately misled by GTac, WMC and WMA about the safety of taconite mining and cast votes based on unproven mining industry rhetoric over scientific fact.

The biggest lie coming from WMC and mining proponents and repeated by Kaufmann is that the law "doesn't alter a single water-quality, groundwater or air-quality standard." The nonpartisan Legislative Council's memo to legislators on the bill reveals dozens of instances of exemptions or reduced applications of current environmental law for this company's proposal. Even Wisconsin DNR's mining administrator, Ann Coakley, stated "there are a lot of changes that could easily be seen as weakening of environmental regulations," as reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

For example, current mining law (a compromise hammered out with mining companies) already allows a groundwater sacrifice zone where pollution is allowed up to 1,200 feet in all directions from the edge of a waste site or mine. The bill allows DNR to double that boundary to 2,400 feet if the company's design can't meet the 1,200-foot standard. The numerical standard for groundwater pollution may not change, but the amount of polluted water would be dramatically increased.

The bill requires the DNR to approve water withdrawals in any amount, from any location, regardless of whether the withdrawal will cause lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, wetlands or wells to go dry. It allows the company to fill lake beds and dump wastes into sensitive wetlands, shorelands and floodplains. It exempts the company from meeting local zoning approvals. It removes the contested case hearing before the permit decision is made, which deprives the public of their right to have the company's claims and DNR decisions reviewed while under oath.

The bill limits state regulators' ability to adequately review the proposal by imposing arbitrary time deadlines of 420 days for permit decisions, and places an unreasonable cap on the costs of review. The creation of an artificial deadline for permit decisions alone virtually guarantees that federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers will initiate analysis independent of the state due to the federal trust responsibility to protect resources of Native Americans. The Bad River Band of Ojibwe also has sovereign authority under the Clean Water Act to protect its wild rice from mining pollution. This means that regardless of any new bill passed here, federal permit decisions are unlikely to be made for many years in the future.

There is no debate that this proposal will cause enormous and devastating effects on the air, land and waters of the Bad River watershed of Lake Superior, even if it somehow meets current environmental standards, let alone the gutted regulations in the bill. It is no exaggeration to state that mining proponents are lying to legislators and the public about the impacts of this legislation.

Al Gedicks is the Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations. Dave Blouin is the Mining Committee Chair for the Sierra Club - John Muir Chapter and co-founder of the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in