Gogebic Taconite announced last week that it is closing its office in Hurley, Wisconsin and, for now, putting plans on hold to build a huge open pit iron ore mine in the pristine Penokee Mountains in Northern Wisconsin. The proposed 4.5 mile wide mine would have produced 8 million tons of finished taconite annually, rivaling the huge Hibbing Taconite in Minnesota according to a report in the Duluth Tribune.
The planned area of the Wisconsin mine is located directly over the Great Northern Divide and the Bad River Watershed through which many streams flow directly into Lake Superior and through the famed wild rice beds on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation. GTAC’s plans ignited a fiery debate between mining supporters and tribes, local residents and environmentalists.
The mining debate helped create new and surprising alliances between tribal groups and local citizens. Opponents worked to educate county board members and local citizens about the real human cost of the mine as reported by ICTMN.
Although initially strong mine supporters, the Ashland County board created mining regulations of their own requiring mining companies to address problems such as noise, dust, damage to public roads, etc.
Last summer, the Wisconsin Federation of Tribes took their concerns directly to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking the agency to use the 404c portion of the Clean Water Act to stop the mine.
Native Alaskans used a similar tactic to stop the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.
Although the EPA made no official move to intervene in the Wisconsin mine, the Pebble Mine action was clearly a concern for GTAC.
In a GTAC company statement, president Bill Williams blamed the EPA and its handling of protection for wetlands as a primary concern. He claimed that the mining location contained more wetlands than the company had initially anticipated.
According to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said in a statement:
“It’s unfortunate that the federal requirements for mitigating wetlands make it cost-prohibitive for Gogebic to move forward at this time. We remain committed to working with companies interested in creating quality, family-supporting jobs in Wisconsin.”
Walker came under fire last year when it was learned that he accepted a secret $700,000 donation from GTAC during his recall election in 2012. Under the banner of jobs creation, Walker famously pushed for changes Wisconsin mining laws so that the company could move forward with its plan. GTAC lobbyists created much of the language of the new laws.
“We will continue to investigate the possibility of pursuing a permit to mine the Upson site (in Iron County) but cannot justify maintaining an office in Hurley without a prospect of immediate action,” Gogebic said in a statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“Mines are like vampires; they’re very hard to kill. The mineral deposit (that attracted GTAC) isn’t going away,” noted Rich Eggleston, a member of Citizens Concerned about the proposed Penokee Mine.
In efforts to ensure that any future GTAC efforts will face stringent environmental protections, the Bad River tribe recently applied for pristine air status under the federal Clean Air Act according to a report Wisconsin Public Radio.
Meanwhile Bad River Ojibwe reservation community members are “thrilled,’ according to resident Marylu Salawater.
Salawater and her family have been long time opponents to the mine.
“We are grateful for the reprieve. We were lulled into taking our resources for granted. Now we know that they need protection,” Salawater said.