Proposed northern Wisconsin mine promises jobs, but environmental impact questionedA taconite mine proposed near Ashland in northern Wisconsin could bring thousands of high-paying jobs to the region and billions of dollars to the state's economy, but it would first have to pass an extensive environmental impact study.
By: Judy Newman, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
A taconite mine proposed near Ashland in northern Wisconsin could bring thousands of high-paying jobs to the region and billions of dollars to the state's economy, but it would first have to pass an extensive environmental impact study.
A report released Monday by NorthStar Economics, Madison, said that if the Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine were built, at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion, the two-year construction period alone would create 3,175 jobs and $20.6 million in state and local tax revenue.
After the mine began operating, producing 8 million tons a year of taconite, a low-grade iron ore, it would support 2,834 jobs in the 12-county region of northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and generate a total economic impact of $604 million a year, the report said. About 700 of the jobs would involve mining, paying an average $82,984 a year.
But a project like that would have to pass environmental muster, said Ann Coakley, director of waste and materials management for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It would require an extensive review of the potential impact on natural resources, such as surface and ground water, wildlife, threatened and endangered species, and air pollution.
"The whole area is a bunch of streams and wetlands. I know they could not avoid an impact on streams and wetlands," Coakley said.
NorthStar president David J. Ward said the project would mean a lot to the area, which he called the "poorest region in the state."
"If something like this were to happen, it would be a game-changer up there," he said.
Already, two or three people a day are stopping at the company's Hurley office, which opened in January, bringing mementos of past mines in the area or dropping off job resumes, said Bill Williams, GTac president. "They want (the mine) tomorrow," he said.
Mellen to Upson
Gogebic Taconite holds an option to lease a 22-mile stretch between Mellen and Upson, from Highway 77 south, with the primary focus on a 4- to 4.5-mile path that crosses the Ashland-Iron county line. U.S. Steel "looked very hard" at the area in the 1960s and did extensive studies, said Matt Fifield, managing director of the Cline Group, one of the nation's private largest mining companies and GTac's parent company.
Those analyses showed the bedrock is 30 percent iron, considered a mid- to high-range taconite deposit, and it covers a "very large" territory, Fifield said. "There's enough resource to last 35 years of mining."
GTac has applied for permits from the DNR to drill eight holes, each about two-inches wide and 1,500 feet deep, to conduct its own tests. The ore is "genetically related" to taconite deposits in Minnesota and Michigan that have been mined for decades, Fifield said.
In taconite mining, the rock is broken loose with explosives, and the taconite chunks are crushed and taken to a processing plant where the iron is removed magnetically and rolled with clay to form pellets. The pellets are shipped down the Great Lakes to steel plants across the Midwest.
Environmentalists on alert
Chemicals would not be used in the taconite mining process, Fifield said, as they would have been in the bitterly opposed zinc and copper mine proposed for the Crandon area and scrapped in 2003. A state moratorium on open-pit sulfide mines also would not affect the Gogebic proposal.
Even so, environmental groups will be watching carefully. "I think any time you start considering open-pit mining ... you have to be very concerned about possible water contamination issues, issues with waste stream and air pollution issues," said Clean Wisconsin attorney Katie Nekola.
GTac has held several meetings with local residents. Reaction has varied, said Dale Kupczyk, executive director of the Ashland Area Development Corp. "There's been way more positive than negative. But there are questions. People are concerned about their water quality, water table, air pollution, etc.," he said.
The DNR's Coakley said that if the mine proposal is submitted, it could take two to five years to review. "This is very early in the process," she said.
Copyright (c) 2011, The Wisconsin State Journal
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