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Issues > Mining > Penokee Mine

Proposed Taconite Mine in the Penokee Range

The company Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) purchased the mineral rights for a vast area in northwestern Wisconsin-- 21,000 acres along 22 miles of the beautiful Penokee Range in Ashland and Iron Counties. In 2011, GTAC proposed to build what could become the largest open-pit iron-ore mine in the world (4 1/2 miles long, 1.5 miles wide and up 1,000 feet deep) to extract taconite, a type of low-grade iron ore. Although they claimed to have no interest in circumventing Wisconsin's safe-guard mining laws, they ended up working behind the scenes for months to gut the same mining laws that they supposedly were not interested in changing. AB 426 demolished environmental safeguards related to mining, eliminated public input, reduced revenues to local communities, and rushed the permit review process.

 

Copper Falls State Park

Copper Falls State Park

After Governor Walker's 2013 State-of-the-State address AB 426 was resurrected and a 'new' mining bill, AB 1 / SB 1, was proposed on January 9. Unfortunately, this bill is just as destructive at AB 426.  Unfortunately, this bill was fast-tracked and passed the Senate on February 27 with at 17-16 vote and the Assembly on March 7 on a party-line vote.  Governor Walker signed the bill on March 11. Despite this setback, we will continue to fight the mine every step of the way! 

GTAC recently obtained permits from the Wisconsin DNR to begin conducting exploratory drilling operations at the proposed mine site, and they have a pending application for bulk sampling.  After protesters started camping at the site, and a few protesters participated in an incident in which some alleged property damage occured, GTAC hired out-of-state company Bulletproof Securities to patrol the area. 

After the media learned that Bullteproof Securities failed to obtain a license to operate (or carry weapons) in Wisconsin, they left the site.  However, the media have reported that GTAC plans to rehire them once they have obtained the necessary licenses. In response to this alarming situation, the Sierra Club filed a complaint with the Iron County DA and the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Servicesin mid July.  Unfortunately, the Iron County DA declined to press charges, and the WI DSPS granted Bulletproof's operating permit. Moreover, Sen. Tom Tiffany has introduced SB 278, which would allow GTAC to exclude the public from accessing 3,500 acres of Managed Forest Land near the mine site without requiring the landowner to forfeit substantial tax benefits. 

The Mining Site:

Map of proposed mine area

The proposed mine site was in the Penokee Range, in the heart of Wisconsin's North Woods and the Bad River Watershed.  It was near one of the most beautiful and environmentally sensitive parts of Wisconsin, the Copper Falls State Park on the shores of Lake Superior .

The Penokee Range is 25 miles of elevated land that is home to hardwood forest, rivers and streams, wetlands, and two lakes.  The land provides crucial habitat to wolves, bald eagles, songbirds, rare plants, and countless other animals that rely on the forested community.

The area is also critical for clean water resources.  Over 200 inches of snow each year provides fresh clean water that supports the Bad River Watershed and Lake Superior.  The Kakagon and Bad River coastal wetland complex on Lake Superior are known as "Wisconsin's Everglades"  The Kakagon slough was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1973. This area is critical to the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa for wild rice production. 

Upton Falls

Large-scale taconite mining would have threatened local communities' air and water.  The area's surface and groundwater provides drinking water for the cities of Ashland, Mellen, Highbridge, Marengo, Odanah and Upson, and we could not risk polluting these vital water resources and endangering the health of the citizens in these cities.  Tourism would also have been threatened by the destruction of the forest and aquatic habitats that are home to important and vulnerable birds and other susceptible wildlife species.


Taconite Mining:

While researching the environmental records of various Taconite mines, the Sierra Club found that all 10 of the operating taconite mines in Michigan and Minnesota had serious, air and water violations.  A survey of  compliance records from 2004-2012 showed that modern taconite mines were chronic polluters that incurred fines and stipulations of over $10 million. 

With contaminants such as mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals, sulfates, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides being released from mining tailings' waste dust, waste rock, ore transportation and ore processing, the air and water quality in northern Wisconsin could have been seriously polluted. Mining companies in Minnesota have faced serious issues with getting rid of the waste water from taconite mining plants. However, attempting to release recycled waste water into waterways around mining facilities can cause many problems for the surrounding aquatic environments. For example, increased Mercury levels in waste water can bioaccumulate in fish populations, and thus, endanger consumers who eat the fish. Waste water can also increase the temperature of the aquatic ecosystem, and this can cause problems for the animals that rely on these waterways. Not to mention, tailings and sediments in waste water also pollute waterways.


A Minnesota DNR report in 2003 found that taconite mining was the 2nd largest source of Mercury emissions after coal power plants.  A taconite mine in Wisconsin would have been a new source of Mercury that would have further contaminated and poisoned our fish and wildlife. Considering that our waterways are already under advisories against consuming mercury contaminated fish, another source of Mercury pollution was something Wisconsin did not need.

Health Concerns: There are serious suspicions that taconite mining can lead to mesothelioma, a rare cancer that forms in the outer lining of the lungs linked to asbestos exposure.  Since 2003, 52 cases of mesothelioma development in miners and their family members have been diagnosed.  Although at least 13 were the result of asbestos product exposure, with only 3,000 cases diagnosed annually, those levels are extremely high. According to the University of Minnesota, the rate of mesothelioma is 70% higher in northern Minnesota than the rest of the country.  The Minnesota Legislature committed millions of dollars to a University of Minnesota study of hundreds of miners and their spouses and thousands of death certificates for taconite workers to research the connection between taconite dust and mesothelioma. Dr. Jeff Mandel of the University of Minnesota said, "We wouldn't be up here if we didn't think there was a pretty good chance at a link."

Click here for more information on the Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study:

http://www.sph.umn.edu/research/highlights/taconite/

Click here for a media release on the 2010 annual report on the study to the MN legislature:

http://www.northlandsnewscenter.com/news/local/Study-Update-Shows-Increase-In-Mesothelioma-Cases-117214413.html

Economic Concerns: Proponents of taconite mining didn't address the risks to tourism and the environment that mining would cause, and instead, they talked about the promise of job creation.  When we looked to Minnesota and Michigan's taconite mines as case studies, it was easy to see a mining economy resulted in a 'boom and bust' economy.  The steel industry has inconsistent market demand and mines have been permanently or temporarily shut down during soft market times.  In 2008, two taconite mines temporarily laid off hundreds of employees for months until demand increased again and they hired them back.  Unfortunately, these lay-offs are back.  In November, a mining company in Minnesota and Michigan laid off 625 workers.


Cline Mining Group:

Gogebic Taconite (GTAC)  is owned by Cline Resource and Development Group. When we looked at GTAC's track record, we found they had never mined taconite before. Instead, they operated coal mines in Illinois, and other mines in West Virginia.  Cline had been cited 25 times for violating water quality standards at 4 mines.  And another Cline subsidiary, Hillsboro Energy, operates Deer Run Mine, a longwall coal mine in Illinois that has been cited for environmental violations 19 times in its first 3 years of operations.   

Longwall mining removes the entire coal seam.  The mines use hydraulic supports to hold the roof up, which are moved as the operation advances, causing the roof behind it to collapse.  The practice is so destructive it is known to 'sink' the land. Click here to see a video depicting this awful practice. We could not risk the Penokee area being damaged in a similar way.

Aside from destroying land, there were a number of safety concerns with Cline Mining Group as well.  In 2002, near Wharton, West Virginia, Cline's best friend, Sidney Green, was killed when the roof collapsed in one of Cline's mines as he was moving a machine.  Cline was fined $45,500 and in 2005 settled with Green's widow, Lorraine.  If he couldn't keep the mine safe for his best friend, how could we be assured it will be safe for our friends and family in Ashland?

Cline's 33,000 square foot house

It was all just a big game to owner Chris Cline.  While we were seriously concerned about his mining ventures destroying our beautiful lands, endangering the lives of our workers and surrounding community members, and pollution from mining dirtying our clean air and water, we found that Chris Cline was living in a 33,000 square-foot house (pictured right) and enjoyed taking his investors on his 164-foot-long yacht named, 'Mine Games'. Wisconsin simply couldn't risk being a pawn in this sort of "game."

 

Volunteer with the Sierra Club!  Call (608) 256-0565 or e-mail elizabeth.ward@sierraclub.org to get involved!


Sierra Club White Papers Related to the Issue:

The Iron Strip Mining Bill briefing includes this background information:

  • Gogebic Taconite wrote the original bill.
  • The geological premise of the bill is false.
  • Current mining law already regulates iron mining and the Flambeau mine was successfully permitted under the same laws.
  • Public polling and overwhelming majorities demonstrated strong opposition to the bill in the last session.
  • The bill includes broad and sweeping reductions in environmental protections for iron mining by exemptions from or limits on the application of current environmental laws.
  • The proposal would become the largest open pit taconite mine on the planet and threatens the Bad River Watershed and Lake Superior with permanent damage and huge quantities of wastes requiring safe management forever.


The Environmental Track Record of Taconite Mining briefing includes this background information:

  • All ten current taconite mines and producers in MN and MI are recent polluters.  Together they represent nearly all taconite production in the US.
  • The ten mines and production facilities have amassed $2.1 million in fines for pollution in the last 10 years alone.
  • A wide variety of pollution from taconite mining spreads far beyond the boundaries of each project including mercury deposition across the region including Wisconsin and water pollution causing fish consumption advisories for many miles of impacts to rivers and streams.
  • Historic iron mining in sulfide bearing minerals – just as in the Penokee Range iron ore that is the subject of this bill – has caused chronic pollution of ground and surface waters.


The Mining Moratorium (“Prove It First”) briefing includes this background information:

  • Possible metallic mines in Wisconsin are in sulfide minerals that can cause extensive damage from Acid Mine Drainage.
  • The history including the votes of current legislators and elected officials who voted for the Moratorium in 1997.  The list includes Governor Walker.
  • The Flambeau mine violated the Clean Water Act and cannot be an example for the Moratorium.
  • To this day, the mining industry has yet to offer a single example of a successfully operated and closed mine in metallic sulfide minerals.

 

Mining News Releases and Editorials:

 

Links to more information:

Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission - Iron Mining in the Lake Superior Basin, 2011 Report

Bad River Watershed Association
- mining page


Penokee Hills Education Project

For more information about mining in Wisconsin, click here.