Northwest Regional Planning Commission joins the discussion - 12.24.12

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home : news : newsDecember 24, 2012

12/21/2012 11:22:00 AM
Iron County Mining Impact Committee begins look at possibilities

Al Christianson

By Wendy Thiede
Special to The Lakeland Times

Just exactly how will the operation of an open pit mine in northern Wisconsin affect the local communities? How will the population demographics change? How many jobs will result? What new roads and bridges will have to be built? How will schools be affected? What services will have to be provided? How much revenue will stay in these communities? 

So many questions persist concerning the impact of a proposed mine in Iron and Ashland counties.

To begin to answer these questions and to help area citizens realize the scope of the proposed mining project in Iron and Ashland counties, several guests spoke at the Iron County Mining Impact Committee meeting in Hurley Wednesday, Dec. 12. 

Jason Laumann of Northwest Regional Planning Commission presented a proposal for a comprehensive impact study; Al Christianson of Ladysmith summarized the Flambeau Mine project and made recommendations for counties facing a mining venture; Tom Bergman, Iron County Zoning Administrator, discussed zoning ordinances related to mining; and representative and senator-elect and chairman of the new Senate Mining Committee, Tom Tiffany, revealed the expectations for mining law changes. 

The meeting, organized by Chairwoman Leslie Kolesar, was attended by 26 people, including representatives from the neighboring towns of Mercer, Morse, Anderson, Ashland, Hurley, and Ironwood. 

Proposed NWRPC Impact Study

Jason Laumann explained what an NWRPC impact study would include and what the cost of such a study would entail. According to Laumann, the importance of a pre-construction impact analysis cannot be overemphasized. No negotiating or planning was done during or prior to the last mining phase in the Gogebic Range, and consequently what was left behind is dismal. The primary “rationale for performing the study now is to provide a basis for negotiating agreements with federal agencies, the state, and the mining company to create a positive long-term vision” – a proactive versus reactive approach.

The core area of primary impact will be the towns of Ashland, Mellen, Hurley, Ironwood, Bessemer and Wakefield. In this area where the actual operation of the mine will occur, analysis of land use and zoning to comply with comprehensive planning goals is critical. 

The population demographics, housing needs, employment, business development, recreation venues, infrastructure, utility grid, law enforcement and fire protection will change drastically with rapid population growth. Increased revenue and taxation will be required to fund necessary capital investments. 

The secondary area of impact encompasses a 60-mile radius from the mine proper, extending south of Highway 8, west to Duluth, and east to Bruce Crossing. From within this range commuting workers and ore hauling will impact the roads and public transportation. The economies, education, energy needs, and employment in this outer circle will change as well. 

The NWRPC study will require approximately one year to complete, depending on data already available. Some aspects, such as zoning regulations, could be initiated right away, which is important given that the anticipated new law may enable a mining company to begin the process soon. An environmental impact study will not be required as it is part of the mine permitting process. 

Since several funding sources may be available, the cost to local communities for this study could be minimal. Those sources include U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), Wisconsin Coastal Management, and U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), and the state mining impact fund, though it is currently inactive. 

A cost estimate of studying just the primary impact area is $140,000 and up, or the cost to study the larger area is $250,000 and up. Included in the cost is NWRPC’s application preparation for those potential grants. Letters of support from the communities to begin the study are the only requirements at this point, as no additional upfront cost would be incurred.


Discussion of the Flambeau Mine

Al Christianson from Rusk County discussed the Flambeau mining operation in Ladysmith in the 1990s. He concurred with Laumann in emphasizing the need for planning ahead and negotiating a comprehensive local agreement with the mining company. Christianson believes that facing the two northern counties is a wonderful opportunity that must be controlled by a master agreement to cover such things as revenue, hiring locals, dust management, and reclamation. Christianson’s advice to local town government was not to give up their zoning ordinances, as this was their “ace in the hole.” 

After 19 negotiating sessions in 18 months and a public hearing, the town of Ladysmith and the Flambeau Mining Company emerged with a good working agreement. Christianson emphasized that a united community and a clear vision of the future are paramount for achieving that goal. 

“Tax distribution should be the biggest concern as once in place, it is difficult to change. You can have your cake and eat it, too,” Christianson said. “You just need to be sure you do it all right. Check the references of the mining company; if don’t like them, wait a while for the right one to come along.”


Iron County zoning

Tom Bergman, Iron County Zoning Administrator, weighed in on the zoning perspective. Currently for Iron County forest crop land, a conditional use zoning permit for extraction of ore from a mine and transportation of it out of the area must be obtained. Until zoning laws are rewritten, processing ore at the mine site or in the county would not be allowed. Application for conditional use would be made to Bergman and then sent to the town, in this case the town of Anderson. The town has the right to either approve or deny the permit. Then the application returns to the county for its denial or approval. If there is disagreement, if the town denies but the county approves, then the case goes to a local arbitration committee.


Sen.-elect Tiffany

Rep. Tom Tiffany, senator-elect and new chairman of the Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining, and Revenue Committee, explained that updating Wisconsin’s mining law in the Senate will begin by tweaking Assembly Bill 426. ”We will not be starting over,” he said. He and the committee will review the hearings and recommendations of the current Senate Select Committee on Mining.

AB426 was a controversial bill which passed in the Assembly last session but was withdrawn in the Senate because of lack of majority support. Tiffany said there will be public hearings, and he acknowledged committee member Larry Youngs’ request that a hearing be held in the north. Tiffany feels confident that a bill will pass by March. 

Jim Kichak, Mercer town chairman, asked if revenue from the mine would remain in the local communities, to which Tiffany replied that the details of the legislation were still being worked out, and “you must realize the state already provides money for local schools and roads.”

Chairwoman Kolesar thanked the speakers for their time and valuable information. More discussion of the NWRPC proposal will occur at the Iron and Ashland County Joint Mining Impact Committee meeting Jan. 9. Ann Coakley, state DNR, will speak at the next Mining Impact Committee meeting