In Wisconsin’s picturesque Northwoods, a big battle over iron-ore extraction is pitting environmentalists and Native Americans against mining companies and their political allies.
The cab of Bill Heart’s Ford Ranger is cluttered with pamphlets and fishing gear, and as we pull out onto Highway 77, just north of the high ridge formed by Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills, a warm August wind rushes through the open windows and whips up patches of fur left behind by his pack of dogs. “My wife has a habit of collecting strays,” he quips. It’s summer and Heart would rather be out fishing. Instead, he is taking me to Harvest Camp, an ad hoc village of makeshift tents, wigwams-in-progress, fire pits, and a sweat lodge that has been established by the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, one of six bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa.
Usually, harvest camps are simply a meeting place for tribal members to share their knowledge of local plant life and its medicinal applications on land they ceded through treaties, but on which they still retain hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. This camp is different. It has become a de facto base camp for protestors – people from both within and outside the tribes – who want to block a massive, $1.5 billion-open pit iron ore mine nearby.
The Penokee Hills span Iron and Ashland Counties in Wisconsin’s iconic Northwoods. The hills are the headwaters of the Bad River that flows into Lake Superior, which by surface area is the world’s largest freshwater lake. But there’s also an estimated 3.7 billion tons of iron ore underneath the mountain ridge. In total, the deposit is roughly 20 percent of all remaining US iron ore reserves. Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a subsidiary of the Cline Group, owned by Florida coal magnate Chris Cline, has its sights set on this iron ore. Mining the ore body would start with a mine roughly 4 miles in length and 800 feet deep, making it the largest open pit mine of its kind in the world. The full ore body is 22 miles long, so the long-term potential for changing the landscape is astounding. If the vein were to be completely dug out, the hole in the ground would be big enough to contain the largest open pit iron mine in the US five times over.
Heart is secretary-treasurer of the Penokee Hills Education Project, and that puts him at the frontlines of a big battle pitting Native Americans and other environmentalists against mining companies and their political allies. As the Wisconsin representative of Trout Unlimited’s national leadership council, Heart is well-versed in river hydrology and fisheries, and says the proposed mine would be an ecological disaster for a region that is defined by its water bodies.
“I’ve spent so much time trout fishing and exploring the Penokees, it is so obvious that this mining project would have huge impact on the coldwater resources of this headwater region,” Heart says. “There are hundreds of acres of intact wetlands, which produce plenty of cold water to make it possible to have a healthy brook trout population. A mine will destroy these crucial wetlands.”
Having lived in Ashland County for 40 years, Heart also knows that the divisions among those who do and don’t want the mine are well-worn from previous battles over hardrock mining, which drove the economy of the Upper Midwest from the late-nineteenth and into the middle of the twentieth century. These stark divisions are reemerging in northern Minnesota, where several companies are seeking permits to mine a range of metals found precipitously close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, one of the most visited wilderness areas in the United States.
Seven large, iron-rich veins span the Upper Midwest, stretching across northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. During the beginning of the mining boom in the 1800s, many Finns and Swedes, Poles and Germans moved to the Upper Midwest to make a living blasting through veins of high-quality iron ore. The boom times lasted through the Second World War.
“In World War II, we were an economy driven by the wartime effort,” says Christopher Tuck, mineral commodity specialist at the US Geological Survey’s National Minerals Information Center. That translates into an economy driven by steel. Miners in the iron range of the Upper Midwest could hardly keep up with the work, but if they found it hard to rise in the pre-dawn dark, they were buoyed by the notion of helping to equip the troops. After the war, Tuck says, “We had a steel industry that was four or five times larger than we could support, so the mines naturally aged out. They would close the mine, reclaim the land, and move on to another venture.”
Following this, the price of iron ore remained flat for decades and the global iron-mining industry went through a major consolidation. For many of the towns that were born through mining, the mine closures were a hard blow, and the sting has lasted decades. Today Michigan has only two active iron mines, one of which is slated to shut down this year. Minnesota has six. (The two states still supply nearly all of the roughly 55 million tons of iron ore produced in the US each year.)
In Wisconsin’s iron belt, the impact of the mine closures is obvious. Iron County had the highest unemployment rate in Wisconsin – 13.1 percent as of April. The state has not had an active iron mine since 1982, not because the ore is tapped out, but because Wisconsin enacted strict environmental safeguards around metallic mining in 1997 via a law that locals call “the mining moratorium.” But the rising price of iron globally, coupled with the anti-regulatory politics of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, has created a new opportunity for a mining comeback.
In 2010, GTac purchased options to lease mineral rights on 22,000 acres of the Penokee Hills. By early 2011, with iron prices reaching a record high of $187 a ton, GTac submitted an application for a metallic mineral exploration license with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The ore body that GTac is eyeing, called the Ironwood Formation, is taconite – a low-grade iron ore, found mostly around Lake Superior. Since it’s near the surface, extracting it will require an open pit. And since the taconite is mixed with other minerals in the ore body, it must be extracted onsite in a pelletizing plant, itself a massive industrial plant that will require a lot of power to run. In its pre-application to the Wisconsin DNR, GTac said it will likely need to upgrade power lines, build a substation, and bring a natural gas line to the mine.
The Ironwood Formation has been prospected many times in the past, but for decades global demand for iron was not high enough to justify the tremendous cost of digging it up, let alone for a mine that could satisfy the environmental standards of the 1997 mining law, which essentially required the developer to prove no environmental harm would be done. But rising demand for virgin iron – currently holding steady at around $120 per ton – has been a game changer.
In early 2013, Governor Walker signed a new state mining legislation, Wisconsin Act 1, which revised the 1997 mining moratorium to allow for ferrous mining, and removed many key environmental protections designed to safeguard the state’s wetlands and water sources. The revision was wrought by Gogebic Taconite, which lobbied state legislators for years in order to get them to water down the longstanding mining law.
For many in Wisconsin, the possible return of mining spells jobs and revenue. But to those who live downstream of the proposed mine – especially the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation is six miles from the mining site – the short- and long-term potential for devastation is staggering.
“There’s the upper watershed, the Penokee Mountains, where the proposed mine would be situated. Then there is the lower watershed, which is like the bottom of a bowl,” says Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr. “That lower bowl is essentially our tribal nation.” The reservation is home to the Ramsar-designated Bad River and Kakagon sloughs that harbor 40 percent of Lake Superior’s wetlands and wild rice beds, which tribal members harvest using traditional methods. “We are in the crosshairs,” Wiggins says, “set to endure the bulk of the environmental impacts in terms of groundwater pollution, surface water degradation, and air pollution.”
Mine opponents, including some who initially felt neutral on the topic, say Gogebic Taconite has been dishonest in its dealings with residents of Iron and Ashland Counties from the beginning. In April 2011, after holding initial meetings saying it could develop the mine under existing regulations, GTac told a panel of local stakeholders and state regulators that it would have to “reform” the mining law to accomplish its mission.
By the end of that year, the first iteration of the mining law revision was moving through the legislature. Facing a vocal opposition from across the state, it failed. “At that point, GTac said they could see they weren’t welcome in Wisconsin. They turned their lights off and threatened to leave town,” says Paul DeMain, CEO of IndianCountryTV.com, a news organization based on the nearby Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation. But instead of leaving, he says, GTac and its lobbyists started “pumping a lot of money into the state legislative process, through political contributions to Scott Walker and a number of other people in strategic positions.”
Christopher Cline and GTac employees have contributed nearly $25,000 to Governor Walker and Republican legislators since 2010, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a campaign-finance watchdog group. Add donations from groups in favor deregulating mining in the state, such as the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce lobbying group, and that figure swells to $15 million. Based on that larger figure, pro-mine contributors have outspent mine opponents by more than 600 to 1.
The mining bill was reintroduced in January 2013 and moved quickly through both houses. It was approved on February 27, and a couple of weeks later Governor Walker signed the bill into law. “The whole political process was poisoned by money and lack of process,” DeMain says.
While the previous mining law required the state Department of Natural Resources to deny permits if proposed mines were likely to have lasting negative impacts, language in Act 1 makes wetlands damage a given, qualifying them as “necessary” for the development and production of a mine. The biggest changes to the mining law include: allowing mining companies to dump mine waste in water bodies; and eliminating the need for a public hearing during which companies had to testify, under oath, that their mining project is in compliance with the state’s environmental standards. Under the new law, the state DNR has only 420 days to study the impacts of a proposal and decide on whether to issue a permit. (The US Corps of Engineers has already stated this timeline will be inadequate for its review of the GTac mine.)
Despite GTac’s savvy political maneuvering, its efforts to mine the Penokees remain fraught with battles, including a verbally violent confrontation last summer by a crew of protestors who threatened mine workers who were drilling ore samples. GTac reacted by hiring a security detail armed with semi-automatic weapons. Months later, the legislature passed a law requiring the public to stay at least 600 feet away from fixed sampling equipment as well as 600 feet from either side of a road used to access the a site where testing is being conducted.
During a meeting with journalists in late August, it was clear that the intensity of the controversy was starting to wear on GTac spokesperson Bob Seitz. His comments ranged from measured – “People want to separate economic from environmental concerns, but a positive environment comes with a sound economy” – to irked – “People are receptive, but only if [they] believe in science” – to agitated – “Some people are just looking for a fight, we’re looking for the facts. A lot of what we have today is coming from rhetoric and scare tactics.”
The company estimates the mine would employ around 700 people directly, and support more than 2,000 jobs in surrounding towns for its 35-year lifespan. That’s appealing to many locals who are eager for the financial stability a mine could bring. It’s not hard to find a local whose father or grandfather was a miner, and who sees the mine as at worst, a lifeboat, and at best, the seed of a better life.
“We are not new to the bust economy,” says Mitch Koski, the mayor of Montreal, a small town in Iron County, where median household income is $37,000. “We’ve tried so many things. It’s tough for us to hear ‘Can’t you just be happy with what you’ve got?’” Bob Walesewicz recalls that when he asked his grandfather if the constant rumble of ore trains bothered him, he would respond, “That is the sound of men working.”
Koski and Walesewicz are members of Iron County’s Mining Impacts Committee. Critics allege the committee is now entirely pro-mining. Richard Thiede, a retired business owner who used to be the committee’s secretary, says the county board disbanded the committee after a contentious meeting with GTac in January 2012 during which a couple of committee members asked company president Bill Williams some hard questions.
“The committee [members were] replaced by basically five mine cheerleaders,” Thiede says. “That made me really angry. So being retired, and having time, and having a background in engineering and science, I started digging into it more.” In April, Thiede, who is against the mine, ran for the Iron County Board, but lost. The county board elections are usually low-key affairs with few contested seats, but this year the fight over the mine had pro- and anti-mine candidates duking it out for 10 of the 15 county seats. In the end, two incumbents were ousted by “anti-mining” candidates.
All politics might be local, but the Penokee Hill mine proposal has been attracting national attention. In March, a few weeks before the April 1 elections, Americans for Prosperity, a Super PAC funded by oil barons Charles and David Koch, sent fliers to Iron County residents that read: “Iron County, and the iron mines that drive our economy, is being targeted by wealthy environmental groups from outside of Wisconsin.” It also called seven of the candidates – including one who has remained neutral on the issue – “anti-mining radicals.”
Last year, as the tension around the mine proposal began to heat up, business owners who support the mine posted signs that read: “Stop the whining – start the mining!” I asked Bad River Chairman Wiggins how a slogan like that made him feel. “Determined,” he said, after taking a moment to consider his response. “Determined to continue educating, talking about the mining issue. Just like many Bad River people and just like many non-tribal people around the watershed are saying, the message is: Water is life, water is sacred.”
The Penokee Hills region is defined by its rivers, streams, and wetlands, which are a key source of clean water for the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior. Apart from hosting a diverse array of wildlife – including the federally protected bald eagle, rare plants, songbirds, and a variety of fish – these water bodies provide drinking water for the nearby cities of Ashland, Mellen, Highbridge, Marengo, Odanah, and Upson.
Environmentalists say large-scale taconite mining in the region would produce massive volumes of waste rock containing sulfides, which when exposed to air and water transform into sulfuric acid that can leach into the surrounding waterways and turn the water acidic. This phenomenon, called “acid mine drainage,” is responsible for massive water pollution problems at mine sites throughout the world. The United Nations Environment Program calls acid mine drainage “acutely toxic to aquatic ecosystems.”
The Dairy State hadn’t enacted stringent mining safeguards back in 1997 merely on a whim. As in many parts of the country, decades of hardrock mining left a dire legacy in the iron ranges of the Upper Midwest.
Generally speaking, sulfides are not associated with iron ores. Acid mine drainage is much more closely associated with extracting copper, nickel, and zinc – which are often called “sulfide mines.” The 1997 mining law was, in fact, the product of a protracted battle over a proposed zinc-copper mine in Crandon, Wisconsin. It pitted Exxon and Rio Algom (a mining company now owned by BHP Billiton) against the Mole Chippewa Tribe whose rice beds were downstream from the proposed mine. Backed by four other tribes, labor unions, environmental groups, and sport fishermen, the resistance to the Crandon Mine led to the mining moratorium.
Were ferrous mines unfairly swept up in that 1997 law? That was one argument for Governor Walker’s new mining law. Act 1 makes a distinction between ferrous and non-ferrous mining, and applies myriad regulatory changes – not just with respect to environmental law but also permitting, taxation, and enforcement – only to ferrous mining. The new law does not mandate a process for preventing the harm from the sulfide minerals that mining would unleash.
But several geologists, including Tom Fitz, a professor of geoscience at nearby Northland College, have tested rocks from the proposed mine site and found the presence of pyrite, a mineral that contains sulfide. Fitz has also found grunerite, a highly carcinogenic asbestos-form mineral at the site. He is certain this represents a health hazard to mine workers.
When queried about these toxic minerals, GTac said that a lab test it performed came up inconclusive. There is no use talking about possible “bad actor” minerals until the core sample tests are done, Seitz said. He said the mineral content is proprietary, and refused to disclose any information about it.
GTac president Bill Williams has talked about mitigating the possibility of acid mine drainage through a tailings treatment called dry stacking. Dry stacking is generally done in arid climates where tailings ponds are more difficult to create. Using this approach could have benefits in the water-rich environment of the Great Lakes, because having no tailings pond means no possibility of a catastrophic breach. But Tim Myers, GTac’s manager of engineering, admitted the company has no experience dry stacking iron mine tailings – let alone in a water-rich environment where failure to keep the tailings dry could produce run-off containing sulfuric acid.
Regardless of whether a taconite mine in the Penokees would generate significant acid mine drainage, there are other environmental problems associated with it, especially with respect to the production of taconite pellets. Taconite pellet production, mostly in northeastern Minnesota, is the largest source of airborne mercury pollution in the Lake Superior basin. Bacteria that feed on sulfates are linked to production of methylmercury, which is another threat to fisheries, as well as to those who consume the fish. Ditto for selenium, a bioaccumulative fish toxin associated with taconite mining.
Despite all the opposition, GTac has already begun bulk sampling iron ore at the mining site. In early March, a group of citizens sued DNR for allowing GTac to remove 2,400 tons of rock from the site without obtaining a stormwater runoff permit.
Anti-mining groups worry that the DNR may not use enough scientific rigor in its review of the mine proposal. So a handful of tribal and environmental organizations have begun running independent monitoring programs to attain baseline data on air and water quality in the Bad River watershed. Local opponents might not have the power to overcome Governor Walker’s “open for business” style of governing, but the low cost and accessibility of sensors means they’re empowered in ways unimaginable before the 1997 mining moratorium was enacted.
Meanwhile, at the Lac Courte Oreilles harvest camp, the tribe was making every effort to draw attention to how the mine would violate its treaty rights, as well as to highlight sustainable alternatives to mining. When I visited the camp with Bill Heart, tribespeople expressed anger over how the mine would impact the Penokee Hills. “Native Americans look seven generations ahead,” one of the campers, Mel Gasper, told me. “I’m up here to look seven generations ahead. We’re not here to take over the mountain, but to save it.”
The tribe occupied the forest for 11 months, harvesting wild edibles to supplement their diet and documenting the different resources in the forest. They even toughed it out through a painfully cold and snowy winter. In early spring, more than six months after my visit, county officials ordered them off the site, saying the group had well surpassed a 14-day camping limit on the public land. Not people to give up easily, the tribal activists moved parts of the camp to an alternative site on private land nearby and began rotating people in and out of the original campsite to remain in compliance with the 14-day limit.
“A lot of our treaties ceded land to non-tribal people in exchange for hunting/fishing rights, but that is predicated on clean air and water,” Wiggins says. “We understand the bounty and the fact [that] the cleanliness of the water, and this big beautiful Lake Superior, these are the economic foundations that will carry us into the future for hundreds of years. The mining company said ‘unless you have this mine, you’re never going to live into the future.’ That idea of scarcity they are trying to convey, we reject it.”