Northern Wisconsin (WQOW) - The plans for a large iron mine took a big step forward when Governor Walker signed a new mining law this year, but there is still a lot that has to happen before any ore is mined.
One step was taken on Thursday. The DNR received an application from Gogebic Taconite to do exploratory drilling in Ashland and Iron counties. The DNR now has 10 business days to review and make a decision about that application. (Click here to see the DNR's new web page about the project.)
(This is the third story in the WQOW News 18 series, "Mine of Information.")
WQOW News 18 asked lawmakers about the impact the new mining law could have. "This law says it should be assumed, presumed necessary to fill wetlands. It should not be presumed necessary, it should be presumed the last resort to fill those wetlands," said Sen. Bob Jauch (D) Poplar. "We specifically stated that you cannot fill in lake streams or lake beds and you cannot fill in or do any damage to Class 1, Class 2 or Class 3 trout streams," said Rep. Scott Suder (R) Abbotsford.
Under the old law, you could not fill any lake bed or stream with mining waste. The new law does not expressly forbid that, but certain standards have to be met before the DNR signs off.
"This (new) law is extremely strict," said Bob Seitz, the external affairs director for Gogebic Taconite. "To say our rivers and streams will be filled, no. Trout streams up there, those can't be touched," said Seitz.
A WQOW News 18 crew recently stood along a trout stream near G-Tac's proposed mine site in northern Wisconsin with the DNR's point person on ferrous mining, Ann Coakley. "We're assigning our best staff to this," said Coakley, who's had at least three meetings with G-Tac since the law was passed. "What we'll be looking at is for them to avoid and minimize impacts to wetlands and waterways. From what we've heard from the mining company, Gogebic Taconite, they plan to do that," said Coakley.
"The initial (mining) plan is... it's about four-miles long, about a 4,000-acre area and that would be mined for approximately 35 years," said Seitz. Seven to eight million tons of ore would be mined every year, but none of that happens without a lengthy approval process that begins this spring. G-Tac will explore the ore with borings and bulk sampling. "The bulk sampling is taking large pieces of rock so that they can send those through a pilot processing plant to see how processing would go if they were to have a mine," said Coakley.
Another step that has to be taken is for an environmental impact report to be filed. That report will examine the impact a mine could have on everything from animals and plants to the groundwater. "Anybody who tells you they know exactly what the situation is with groundwater or surface water is showing what they don't know. We don't claim to know exactly what's going on with the water. Until you put in the wells and test the water and find out what's going on, no one can make a determination on that, so we'll do the testing and based on the testing, we'll try to come up with a plan that passes muster," said Seitz.
The DNR says that process could take a year or two. Once that happens, and a permit application is submitted, the DNR is on the clock. "The only thing that changed is that we have a timeline for certain in which we need to either issue a permit or deny a permit application and that is a 420-day deadline from when we receive their application," said Coakley.
That deadline is new, but Coakley says she doesn't feel any added pressure because of it. "There's been nobody from the governor's office or our own administration that's ever asked me to say something or do something. I've really been left alone and have had complete autonomy and I feel really good about that," said Coakley.
Speaking of the governor, he feels there could be an economic boost, perhaps right away. "I would imagine some ripple effect, more people will come to do preliminary work, you may see an expansion in terms of re-opening the hotel in Hurley," said Gov. Walker. "There will be some benefit to a restaurant or a motel, but you're not talking about dozens of people. They're drilling 16 holes. The governor promises too much. He hypes too much," said Sen. Jauch.
G-Tac says the number of workers to expect this summer will easily be in the dozens. The numbers about overall jobs have been pretty consistent. If the mine is approved, 2,000 jobs for two years in construction, 700 workers at the mine and processing plant when production starts. "$60,000 a year average pay and when you add the benefits on, you're talking about an over $80,000 position in a community where family income is below $30,000," said Seitz.
Where would those workers come from? Last summer, a local frac sand mining company expressed concern about the workforce in its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. It said, "There is a shortage of skilled mining labor in Wisconsin." Is that a concern with an iron ore project that would need several hundred workers? "I'm just confident that we have the talent pool they're going to be choosing from. They're not going to have to go out of state," said Rep. Suder.
G-Tac wants to strike while the iron ore is hot, but it's expected the process could take anywhere from three to seven years and the courtroom could be a backdrop for much of it. "The legislation is an invitation to litigation," said Sen. Jauch. "There are people who try to stop every development and every bit of economic activity and this is a large economic activity and so, somebody will probably try to sue over it," said Seitz.
Until then, all eyes on the environmental studies and permitting process. "We will not get a permit if the streams, the aquifer and the wells are not maintained," said Seitz. "I'm not pro-mining or anti-mining. I just think, 'When we get in an application, we'll use the new law and implement the law, and if they follow it, we'll issue a permit and if they cannot, then we'll have to deny the permit application,'" said Coakley.