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Not your grandfather’s iron mine

Some people say “we had iron mining in the Penokees before; the environment is fine now; and we need jobs.” But the open-pit taconite mine proposed by GTAC wouldn’t be like grandfather’s mine. The sheer size of the project and the nature of the ore change everything. The old shaft mines of northern Wisconsin produced high-grade ore delivered directly to U.S. steel plants. Disruption to the environment, amount of waste and discharge of harmful pollutants are far exceeded by today’s massive open-pit taconite mines and onsite processing plants delivering iron to world markets. The track record for GTAC and taconite mining is problematic. In Spain, written charges were filed against Bill Williams, president of GTAC, for violating permit conditions that led to poisoning of an aquifer. In Minnesota, 10 percent of tested newborns had unhealthy levels of mercury; taconite processing is a major source of mercury. Downstream from Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, the St. Louis River is polluted with high levels of mercury and sulfates, resulting in fish consumption advisories and a 100-mile-long wild rice “dead zone.” The taconite mine would be in an environmentally sensitive area with waters that pass through Copper Falls State Park, internationally acclaimed wetlands, sloughs and wild rice beds, and to Lake Superior. The Tyler Formation contains materials, which when disturbed, become threats to health and the environment, materials such as asbestiform fibers linked to mesothelioma, an aggressive lung cancer; pyrite — which reacts to form sulfuric acid when exposed to water and oxygen; and phosphates, enough to turn surface waters into algae-covered “pea soup.” Additionally, extensive forest cover would be removed, causing erosion and runoff detrimental to the watershed. The mine-pit would be “dewatered,” drawing down groundwater and jeopardizing nearby wells. Waste rock reaching heights of several hundred feet would be stored on 3,000 acres of Iron County Forest land and continue to be a source of contamination. Over-riding all, Wisconsin’s new mining law lessens wetland mitigation requirements, deregulates surface and groundwater withdrawals, allows deposits in streams, and changes Department of Natural Resources oversight over waste material. What about jobs? The Minnesota Iron Range has faced mine closures and bankruptcies. More than 8,000 iron-mining jobs were lost in three decades. Technology continues to reduce the number of workers needed. Driverless trucks and automated drills are projected to reduce open-pit mining jobs by about half again. The price of iron ore has tumbled as production exceeds demand. Predictions of 700 mining jobs are likely “pie-in-the-sky” for Wisconsin workers, but a boom-and-bust industry would leave a legacy of lasting problems for the people and resources of local communities. Mary Burke puts people first when she says no to the Penokee mine.