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Test drilling for NW Wisconsin iron mine should start in April

Gogebic Taconite is expected to conduct test drilling on the site of its proposed iron ore mine in Northwestern Wisconsin by the end of April, a state regulator and the company said this week.

The drilling would be the first work in the field by the company after state mining legislation was signed into law earlier this month.

The $1.5 billion iron ore mine would be located over a four-mile area of Ashland and Iron counties.

Bill Williams, president of Gogebic, said Thursday that the company plans to bore 13 holes totaling about 10,000 feet. The deepest: 1,200 feet, pitched at an angle, because the mine would also be dug at an angle into the Penokee Hills -- not straight down.

Gogebic is waiting to file its permit until the deep snow pack melts.

Ann Coakley, the top mining regulator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said that the agency must inspect the locations where drilling will occur to judge the potential environmental impact of the work.

"We will look at each boring to make sure they are avoiding wetlands," Coakley said.

Williams said the holes all will be dug along logging roads in the Penokee Hills, part of the Gogebic Range, where the company hopes to one day mine iron ore.

Williams said the company also is expected to start another type of digging later this year -- a rock analysis known as bulk sampling, in which larger quantities of rock are dug up.

That could lay the groundwork for the company to submit an application for a mining permit to the DNR as early as 2014.

The new mining law specifies that an applicant has to wait a year after getting a bulk mining permit to submit a mine application.

Bulk samples of rock are taken so that Gogebic can conduct tests in processing iron ore into higher grade taconite. Taconite is a staple in the manufacturing of steel.

Williams said it would be optimistic to expect the company to have all of its data ready for submitting an application in 2014.

Gogebic also will start work this spring on its environmental analysis, including studies of plant and animal life in the area, identifying all wetlands and waterways and conducting tests of the groundwater.

Williams said groundwater-related work probably will take longer than this year and could delay the company's application.

The mine would operate for at least 35 years. Gogebic has said the project would generate 700 jobs, and all told would create more than 2,800 jobs in trucking, housing and other industries.

Opponents have questioned the jobs claim and say they believe legislation that relaxed some environmental regulations for iron mining will result in a mine harming the Bad River watershed. The river flows north from the area of the proposed mine into Lake Superior.

Legal experts expect opponents to file a lawsuit at some point in the process. The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's reservation lies just downstream from the mine site and members fear runoff from waste rock will pollute their water. As a sovereign nation, the tribe could bring forth a host of unique environmental rights in court.

After the mining legislation passed earlier this month, Bad River Band Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. promised "active resistance" that could include filing lawsuits to stop the permitting process or occupying the mine site.

The band has started soliciting donations on its website, under a headline that reads "Help us prevent mining in the Bad River Watershed by donating today!"

Gogebic Taconite is a subsidiary of Cline Resource and Development, which controls large coal reserves in Illinois and parts of the Appalachian region.

Gogebic has an option on mineral rights from a group of companies led by La Pointe Iron Co. of Hibbing and RGGS Land & Minerals Ltd. of Houston.

La Point, RGGS and another former owner, U.S. Steel, actively have been marketing the mineral rights for years.

Much already is known about the Penokee iron-ore deposit from exploration work done by U.S. Steel half a century ago. While that information remains proprietary, Wisconsin U.S. Geological Survey Assistant Director Tom Evans said Gogebic Taconite has those records. But he said they will need to drill to find out more, to fill in gaps in existing data.

Wisconsin Public Radio and the Associated Press contributed to this report.