More than 100 people signed up on August 15 in Hurley, Wisconsin to voice their opposition to the Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) mining company’s plan to conduct bulk sampling in the Penokee Hills in preparation for their proposed open pit iron ore mine.
The meeting was the first public hearing conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) regarding the GTAC mining process.
Public comments during the 10-hour hearing were overwhelmingly against the mine and GTAC’s plans to conduct bulk sampling of 4,000 tons of rock in the area. Although GTAC officials have said that the sampling process may not involve blasting, the WDNR is requesting additional information about the sampling process before granting GTAC permission to go forward.
Opponents and observers of the mining situation in this pristine area, however, opine that the WDNR approval is a done deal.
Mike Simonson of Wisconsin Public Radio noted that Bad River Ojibwe tribal officials did not show up at the hearing. “The Bad River tribe thinks that WDNR approval is a slam dunk. They are going to the feds to enforce tribal EPA standards through lawsuits,” he said.
Bad River tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. however, said that although a federal lawsuit is coming from the tribe, their mining opposition strategy is a holistic approach that includes citizen activism, harvest camps, science as well as litigation.
“We do stand by our assertion that the mining law is scientifically dishonest and that the Wisconsin mining law is unjust. Bulk sampling is a derivative of this sad law,” he said.
Wiggins would not comment on a timeline for any potential lawsuits from the tribe regarding the mine.
“The Bad River tribe, like all Anishinabe, will never give up on any potential avenue to protect our home and the Bad River Watershed from mining activities,” he concluded.
Larry Lynch, WDNR hydrogeologist, told WKOW TV from Madison that any actual mining in the area is at least 1.5 to 3 years in the future and would require additional baseline environmental data before the agency provided approval.
WDNR Director of Metallic Mining, Ann Coakley said that her office needs more information before granting the bulk-sampling permit. "Some more on emissions, a little bit more on storm water and potential road construction. So, we're getting closer," she said.
Opponents are concerned that the bulk sampling process would release asbestos into the environment. WDNR officials say that although the presence of asbestos could affect the future of the mine, it will not have an impact on the sampling process.
Indian Country Today Media Network writer Terri Hansen details the presence of grunerite, an especially deadly form of asbestos in the minerals in the Ironwood Iron Formation of the proposed mine in her August 6 story. Hansen noted that GTAC officials have stated that if they need to blast to obtain more rock for additional sampling they will use a volatile mixture of fertilizer and diesel fuel in hundreds of 4 inch by 10-foot holes.
Elizabeth Wheeler, staff attorney for Clean Wisconsin told WKOW, "G-Tac has submitted no plans on how to control dust from the bulk sampling process, they also did not specify the extent the adverse impacts to the scenic or recreational areas.”
Wiggins said, “GTAC’s bulk sampling plan fails to meet the standard set forth in Wisconsin Statute Section 295.45 and is likely to endanger the environment and public health and safety if it is allowed to execute its plan.”
He further noted that GTAC has also failed to provide any estimate on how the materials used in blasting would be contained following their use.
“A complete sampling plan must address how GTAC will deal with the disturbance of sulfide minerals,” Wiggins added.
Pyrite is a sulfide rich mineral and is present in the proposed sampling and mining area. When exposed to air, pyrite releases sulfuric acid into the environment.
GTAC officials maintain that the areas they want to target for sampling and mining do not contain sulfide rich minerals despite geological documentation that the Tyler formation, included in the proposed area does in fact contain pyrite.
Although the WDNR public hearing for oral comments took place on August 15, the agency will continue to accept written comments until September 3, 2013 via mail or email at the following addresses; Larry Lynch, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 101 S. Webster St. Madison, Wis. 53707 or DNRWAMINING-GOGEBIC@Wisconsin.gov
GTAC wants to begin the sampling process this fall.
Meanwhile, the Penokee Hills Harvest camp continues to work on providing information to the community about the impact of a mine in the Hills as well as information about the natural resources in the region.
Camp organizers and supporters will be hosting the inaugural Penokee Hills Education Summit and Potluck Harvest Feast and Powwow September 20-21 at the White Cap Resort in Upson, Wisconsin. The Summit will feature panel discussions with experts about the potential economic impact of the mine on the local community as well as information treaty rights and environmental issues.
The public is invited to bring a dish to share and feast under the full harvest moon on deer and wild rice provided by the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe. According to the group’s website, the powwow will feature the “Worlds first square round dance, combining the drum and the round dance and an area polka band and the square dance.
The status of the Penokee Camp is uncertain. The Iron County Board recently voted to go back to the negotiating table regarding the groups camping permit on the land that borders the area leased by GTAC. Tribal leaders maintain that the Penokee Hills Harvest Camp is a living demonstration of treaty rights originating from treaties signed with the U.S. government in 1837 and 1842 allowing Ojibwe the right to hunt, fish and harvest in the northern third of the state. These rights, they maintain, supersede the camping permit process required by the WDNR.
Senator Bob Jauch’s Chief of staff, Jeff Burhandt noted that the property on which the bulk sampling will occur is privately owned and only available to the public through participation in the Wisconsin managed forest law program which gives property owners a tax break if they open their property to the public for hunting, hiking, cross country skiing, sightseeing and fishing. If the property were not enrolled in the program, owners would not have to provide public access. GTAC has threatened to remove up to 1,300 acres of property from the managed forest law program. This would involve the owner or GTAC, the entity that holds the lease on the land, to reimburse the state of Wisconsin for the provided tax breaks. The public has no authority to challenge such an action. Senators Jauch, Tim Cullen and Dale Schultz are trying to draft legislation that addresses safety concerns for both mining employees and the public while maintaining public access to the land near the site. The legislation would allow the WDNR to set up safety zones around the bulk sampling sites.
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