Environment Magazine

The Real Cost of an Iron Mine in Wisconsin

Posted on the 18 March 2013 by Earth First! Newswire @efjournal


An iron mine in northern Wisconsin will bring 100s of jobs to the area and will result in more motels, restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, repair shops and other businesses to meet the needs of the increased population. This is all well and good, but what will be the cost to the area and to Wisconsin as a whole? Will the mine area and Wisconsin be better off in the end?

I am a retired geologist and hydrologist and have been to many mine sites throughout the country. I have seen the long-term impact on the people living in a mining area as well as the impact on the environment. 

At many mine sites, the health of people has been compromised to the degree that certain types of cancer occur. The air, surface water and groundwater have been impacted sometimes to the point that the groundwater can no longer be used. Is this the price Wisconsin will pay for an open pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin? 

We have reached a point that new jobs are so important that our elected officials are willing to sacrifice the environment that has made Wisconsin famous.

Gogebic Taconite is a company in Florida that is owned by Chris Cline and other investors. He is considered the “Coal King” with coal mines in Illinois and West Virginia. Has anyone in Wisconsin looked at his mining track record before he is allowed to open an iron mine in Wisconsin? It is not very good. 

The Penokee Range, 25 miles long, extends to the southwest from Hurley to south of Mullen and into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National forest. It is just south of Copper Falls State Park. Within the range there is a 22-mile long vein of low grade iron called taconite. 

To reach the iron vein, some 600 feet of rock have to be removed and dumped along the northwest side of the range. Then the iron would be removed down to about 1,000 feet. The first phase is to create an open pit mine 4.5 miles long and 1/3- to 3/4-mile wide.  The question is: What will happen to the people living in the area and the environment?

We have track records of the impact of mining throughout the country, but we do not have to go very far away to look at the impact of iron mining on the iron range of Minnesota. The records show that there was an economic boom during the mining years.  I don’t know how much the state benefited — if there was a tonnage tax collected or not — but certainly Minnesota received money from the state income tax from the workers. 

Several years ago, I biked through the Minnesota iron range, and it was an eye opener. In many areas, the land is covered with mine tailings of waste rock which makes the land unusable. The abandoned iron mines are now filled with water — however, I did not see on the lake any humans or birds. The small towns show little activity and struggle to stay alive. There is some attempt to revive some of the lakes for human use. 

In talking with one lady that lived through the mining years, she said she could not put clothes on the line to dry because they would become red from the iron dust. She said the red dust was everywhere. 

As overburden rocks are disturbed and the iron ore mined, toxic chemicals are released from the rock such as mercury, arsenic, sulfides and others which pollute the air, wetlands, rivers and groundwater. Much of this pollution goes on forever as the tailings weather. 

The miners and their families in the iron range were subject to asbestos exposure that can lead to mesotheloma, which is a rare painful deadly cancer that forms in the outer lining of the lungs.  The rate of mesotheloma is 70 percent higher in northern Minnesota than in the rest of the country.

The passage of Senate Bill 1 (SB1) does not mean that there will be an open pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin. It only allows the mining company to spend less money handling the waste rock. It is not too late to say “no” to mining iron.

Keep in mind that many mining operations around the country file for bankruptcy when the economics of the product make it unprofitable to mine. When mining stops, the area will look like the iron range in Minnesota does today. Does Wisconsin want that? Will the environment and health be too damaged to warrant a mining operation in Wisconsin?

Retired geologist and hydrologist Neil Koch lives in rural Menomonie.

Cross posted from The Dunn County News

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