From Deanna Erickson
Ceremony to Celebrate Spring Urges Us to Protect Penokee Hills
Mellen WI- March 20th, the spring equinox, brought a rag tag group of Wisconsin northwoods residents to the forest land south of Mellen to celebrate spring and ask for guidance as we begin what could be a long struggle against the 21 mile long open-pit mine that would stretch across the Penokee range south of Mellen.
Residents of Ashland, Bayfield, Odanah, Herbster, and Red Cliff as well as other towns in the Northwestern region of Wisconsin have been gathering together each week on Friday evenings to discuss the proposed mine, share information and discuss possible strategies in resisting the La Pointe Iron Company's proposed development. With the approach of spring and the intensified interest in the iron ore in Southern Ashland and Iron counties, group members proposed a trip to the site to ask for guidance and help in protecting the headwaters of the Bad River watershed.
Members of the Bad River Chippewa, Northland college students from Ashland, and residents of all ages from the surrounding communities gathered in the sunny cold to drum, sing, and talk of their commitment to the land that provides for us all. Everyone expressed their gratitude for the company of the others and for our shared commitment to the water and the land. The gathering ended with hugs all around and a brief drive through the hills that rise over the top of the iron ore body.
Another gathering will be taking place in Bad River on April 15th, time and location to be announced.
Contact: Deanna Erickson
ANOTHER NORTHWOODS MINE??
State Senators and Local Government Officials Tour Penokee Mountains with La Pointe Iron Company VP
Mellen, Wisconsin- Saturday felt nearly like spring along Highway 77 in southern Ashland County. Tall trees stood thick amid the snow where the largest open-pit mine Wisconsin has ever seen - 21 miles long, 500 feet deep- could be built in a soon as seven years. La Pointe Iron Company, a subsidiary of U S Steel whose national mineral rights were recently purchased by the Texas-based RGGS Land & Minerals Ltd., is in the process of seeking financial and political backing for the project. David Meineke, vice president of La Pointe, spent the afternoon presenting the proposed site to such state leaders as State Senator Dale Shultz (R-District 17), State Senator Dave Zien (R-District 23), and local leadership, including Mayor of Montreal Robert Morzenti , Ashland City Planner and Zoning Administrator Brea Lemke and Ashland City Administrator Brian Knapp, as well as local union and industry representatives. The meeting was not announced publicly, though a few community members did manage to attend.
After a parking lot tailgate presentation on the mines location and geology, discussion turned to political support for the potential mine. "We haven't met with the governor yet but we met with... his aid and we got a rather favorable response", Meineke said. Senator Shultz added "I think both political parties are way up to our project." The office of Governor Doyle has made no formal public comment on the project thus far.
The tour continued to a point along Highway 13, just south of Mellen and a few hundred feet north of Foley Road, where the ore body juts from the ground, and then on to the Penokee Mountain Lookout in the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest, overlooking the Bad River gorge. Iron ore is oxidized 1000 feet from either side of the river and does not have marketable value, but valuable deposits continue for three to four miles to the west. The tour concluded in the town of Upson, where the eastern end of the ore body lies just a quarter mile south of Highway 77.
"You know, we're looking around the world, talking to all the big companies." said Meineke. The company is seeking anywhere from a half billion and to over a billion dollars in financial backing. Once such backing is secure, the company expects a minimum three year period before formally submitting a proposal to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The acceptance or denial of a metallic mine proposal submitted to the WDNR typically takes at least 4 years, which does not account for the local zoning and permitting process.
Potential Environmental Impacts of a Penokee Mine
By Carl Sack,
Abstract: A consortium of mining companies has presented preliminary� plans for a new, open-pit iron mine in the western Penokee-Gogebic� Range of Ashland and Iron Counties, Wisconsin. The plans entail� removing magnetic iron ore from beneath approximately 200 meters (650� feet) of overburden, creating a narrow pit up to 280 meters (900 feet)� deep along a twenty-one mile stretch of land from Mellen to Upson.� They also call for development of infrastructure for an on-site� steelmaking industry. The economic viability of the proposal is in� debate, and financial backing is as yet unassured. Historically, shaft� mining and pit mining in the Lake Superior basin have each impacted� the surrounding ecosystems through deforestation, alteration of the� landscape, increased erosion and sedimentation, industrial and urban� development, and acid drainage from tailings dumps. The proposed mine� has potential environmental concerns which include transformation of� high-quality forest ecosystems to low-quality remediated fields,� alteration of landscape topography, aesthetic blight, altered� hydrology and contamination of waterways at the head of the Bad River� Watershed and Penokee aquifer, and impacts of new industrial� infrastructure including point and non-point source water pollution,� landscape alteration and deteriorating air quality.
Background ' Location, Geology and History
The Penokee-Gogebic consists of a narrow band of low hills, the� remnants of an ancient moutain-building episode known to Geologists at� the Penokean orogeny, which took place some 1.8 billion years ago� (Schultz 2004). The hills are the granite cores of mountains that once� reached heights as high as the modern Rockies; today the highest peak� is Mount Whittlesey, just south of Mellen, which tops out at 1,872� feet. The hills are bisected by rivers and streams flowing through� twenty-one water gaps. The surface cover is primarily mesic hardwood� forest, with scattered farms. The parallel lowland on the northwest� side of the range provides a transportation corridor in the form of� State Highway 77 and a rail line. It was on this rail line that iron� ore was historically shipped from mines near Hurley and Montreal to� Mellen; it then went north to Ashland, where it was loaded onto� eastbound ore boats (Schultz 2004).
The Range is underlied by the Ironwood formation, a 200-meter-thick� deposit of iron ore and chert sandwiched between belts of slate and� quartzite, and fractured by faults and granitic dikes. The Penokean� orogeny, which built the hills, caused major folding and faulting of� the iron belt, so that now the entire formation is tilted at an angle� ranging from 55 to 70 degrees from horizontal (Crowell & Murray 1927).� Because of this tilt, all of the mining done in the Penokee-Gogebic to� date has been underground shaft mining, unlike the open pit-mined� Mesabi Range of northeastern Minnesota, which has a tilt of only a few� degrees. Shaft mines in the Penokee-Gogebic had depths ranging from� 130 feet (Plymouth Mine) to 4,335 feet at the Montreal Mine, one of� the deepest iron mines in the world at the time it operated (Schultz� 2004).
Mining in the Wisconsin section of the Penokee-Gogebic began in 1884,� with the two leading mines'the Montreal and Cary Mines'opening in 1886� and closing in 1962 and 1965, respectively. During their operation,� these mines produced a total of over 71 million tons of ore, the most� of any part of the state but paltry compared to the Michigan section� of the Range, which is still producing. The mines were ultimately� doomed by the development of open-pit mining on the Mesabi range and� taconite pelleting technology, as well as a burgoening international� market with cheaper, higher-grade foreign imports (Zube 1963). Today,� the area is estimated to contain 15% of all recoverable iron ore in� the United States (Lundgren and Moynihan 2006).
Penokee Mine ' The New Proposal
The recent proposal differs sharply from those that have been� introduced in the past. It would involve an open-pit mine 21 miles� long and up to 280 meters (900 feet) deep. Due to the depth of the� iron deposits in that part of the Range, it would entail removing 200� meters (650 feet) of overburden consisting mainly of granite and� greenstone with some volcanic minerals (Lahti 2006). The overburden� would be dumped in massive tailings piles along the northwest side of� the range. The proposal also includes development of a full processing� and steelmaking industry on site. This would include an iron pellet� production facility, which would pulverize the rock and extract the� iron ore'roughly 20% of the rock volume'using magnets, then reduce the� ore to make 97% pure iron nuggets. There would also be an on-site� steel mill, which would use electric arc furnaces to produce rolls of� steel. These would then be shipped via rail to existing ports (Olivio� 2006). The development of this industry would entail a massive and� costly undertaking to build the necessary infrastructure, which would� include new railroads, roads, towns, processing plants, and a power� plant and/or large transmission lines.
Environmental Impacts ' Comparable Mines
Because previous mines in the area were all underground, there was� not much direct landscape change from the mining itself. However,� there was a great deal of land use change concurrent and associated� with the mines. While much of this occurred as part of the great� cutover from around 1890 to around 1920, land was also cleared for� mine buildings and infrastructure, as well as development of new towns� and industry (Milbourne et al. 1977). In the vicinity of the Montreal� Mine, the area's largest, massive tailings piles have created an� artificial hill and plateau. This unconsolidated material remains� mostly unvegetated. These tailings piles, which sit on the bank of the� Montreal River, also may be impacting water quality, as runoff from� rain and snowmelt flows from them directly into the river. The steep� slope and lack of vegetation on the sides of the piles leaves little� to stop rapid erosion. Though most of the tailings are probably inert,� sulfide minerals have been found to be present (Ralph and Chau 2006).� Sulfide ores and heavy metals are responsible for acid rock drainage� from mine tailings, as discussed in the next section. ��
����� Visible impacts of an open pit mine in the Penokee-Gogebic would� probably be most comperable to mines currently operating in the Mesabi� Range of northern Minnesota. These mines are massive open pits,� similar in depth and length to the proposed mine but broader in width.� Open pit iron mines create large disturbances to the landscape,� clearing and re-shaping the topography of an area up to many square� miles (Milbourne et al. 1977). Because of the removal of overburden,� open pit mines produce much greater quantities of tailings than shaft� mines, which can be backfilled but are usually piled elsewhere so that� closed mines can be reopened for further extraction at a later date� (Erickson 2006; Ackermann et al. 1998). The moving of earth by heavy� equipment creates erosion, dust and fossil fuel emissions (Milbourne� et al. 1977). Large amounts of water are consumed in the processing of� ore, though most is returned with few impurities (Zube 1963). The� cleared land and development also causes less infiltration of water� and more runoff, affecting aquatic systems. Again, acid rock drainage� from tailings can be a problem depending on the mineral content of the� waste rock (Milbourne et al. 1977). Today, remediation is performed in� areas that have been mined out; while this improves the recreational� and ecological value of the mined area, it is usually insufficient to� return the landscape to a state similar to before the mining took place.
Environmental Impacts ' Penokee Mine
The Penokee-Gogebic Range is part of a large tract of more or less� contiguous northern mesic forest. The unfragmented nature of this� forest makes it very ecologically valuable. Large blocks of forest� provide habitat for specialist species of wildlife, are more� hydrologically stable, resist invasive species, and are easier to� manage for wildlife than fragmented areas (Sapper 2002). The clearing� of land for mining and its associated development would fragment this� forest, degrading and homogenizing the ecosystems. Water from cleared� land would run off faster and snow would melt sooner, reducing the� capacity of the aquifer to recharge and increasing erosion and the� risk of flooding. Altering the landscape topography might destroy some� of the water gaps, with unknown consequences downstream.� Aesthetically, a line of open pits in the Penokee hills would be an� eyesore. ���
The water that flows off the Penokee-Gogebic Range currently feeds� the Penokee aquifer and the Bad River watershed. This watershed� contains 72 rare and endangered plants and animals in 28 different� plant communities. The Bad River empties into Chequamegon Bay through� the Kakagon Sloughs, a 16,000-acre complex of wetlands, woodlands and� sand dune ecosystems. This is one of the largest undeveloped� freshwater estuaries in the world, biologically important to� waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, and several species of fish. Wild� rice from the sloughs is important forage for wildlife and highly� valued as a food source and sacred plant by the Ojibwe people. Wild� rice is very sensitive to water contamination and fluctuations in� water level (Dallman et al. 1998). Water pollution from mining and� industry washed down through the watershed could have detrimental� effects on this important ecosystem. ����
Water pollution associated with new mines could come in several� forms. Erosion could add sediment to the river systems. If there were� industries developed that discharged effluent, persistent toxic� substances could be included in the discharge. If water collects in� the mine pits and infiltrates into the aquifer, there could also be a� concern for ground water contamination. The most concrete concern,� however, is runoff from the inevitably massive tailings piles. Since� sulfides such as pyrite, marcosite and galena may be present, the� potential exists for acid rock drainage from tailings. This process� involves sulfur in minerals, primarily pyrite (FeS) becoming oxidized� to create sulfurous acid and iron hydroxide. The acid can lower the pH� of water, making it unsuitable for wildlife, and possibly leaching� heavy metals from surrounding rock. The iron hydroxide precipitates,� coloring the water orange if there is enough of it; this precipitate� is colloquially known as 'yellow boy' (Schaetzl 2005). ����
There are some ways to mitigate water pollution from open pit mines.� Tailings piles can be constructed using a set of best practices that� reduce runoff. A series of benches contoured into the sides of the� tailings piles can trap runoff, limiting erosion (Zube 1963). Topsoil� from the mined areas should be carefully retained and spread over the� finished tailings piles, which then should be immediately revegetated� (Ackermann et al. 1998). Tailings may also be crushed and used for� road construction or industry. Mining pits are typically left to fill� in with water, and in fact the architects of the Penokee Mine proposal� have touted the 'chain of lakes' that would be created as a� recreational benefit (Olivio 2006). These can be made more useful for� recreation and wildlife by regrading the sides to a less than 30%� slope (Ackermann et al. 1998). Backfilling pits with tailings is an� option, but usually not practiced because it would preclude future� mining; even if done, however, only 2/3 of the tailings would fit� (Erickson 2006). In the end, the landscape would be permanently� altered, and the question of what remediation could accomplish would� hinge on what level of alteration is deemed acceptable in the first� place. ���
A third pollution concern regarding the proposed mine is air� pollution. With just a mine, sources of air pollution would include� exhaust emissions from heavy machinery and dust from digging� operations. The concern is much graver, however, given that the plan� involves the construction of an entire steelmaking industry.� Traditional blast furnaces used in metallurgy belch out tons of acid� rain and climate change-inducing chemical compounds, including sulfur� dioxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides (Severson and Peterson� 2006). Newer technologies, however, may combat this pollution. A new� iron refinery would likely rely on direct reduction technology, which� contains a closed loop for waste gasses, resulting in 40% less carbon� dioxide and only a fraction of the other pollutants being emitted� (Olivio 2006). New methods of steel production require less energy� than older technologies, though there would still be a need for either� new power generation or greatly increased power transmission coupled� with increased generation elsewhere. This would most likely entail� more burning of fossil fuels. Overall, predicting air pollution� resulting from the proposed mine is speculative without knowing the� scope of production and the technologies that would be implemented.
Proposal Status ' How Likely Is It'
Firstly, the mining companies interested in developing in the� Penokees have not proven that the mine would be a profit-making� venture. The cost of building the infrastructure necessary just to� start the mine is estimated at $1-1.5 billion, while some estimates� have placed the value of the extractable ore at less than $1 billion� (Lahti 2006). This latter figure could be changing, however. As the� Chinese economy booms, the rising demand for iron ore in that country� has caused the cost of ore on the world market to rise by 70% in 2005� alone. As a result, previously uneconomical iron deposits are now� being considered for exploitation in several U.S. states (Jorgenson� 2006). ����
Northern Wisconsin has other issues that make it considered a poor� location for mining. The struggles that have occurred here over� metallic mining within the past three decades have resulted in the� state becoming well known as politically unfavorable to mining (Lahti� 2006). That this climate is assumed is evident from the cautious� approach to public relations taken so far by LaPointe Iron executives.� The State of Wisconsin also has a long and involved permitting process� for mines, including requirements for public input, environmental� impact statements, remediation plans and a contingency trust fund (DNR� 2003). The entire process takes at least five years. ����
Despite the apparent hurtles, somebody seems to think that a Penokee� Mine would be profitable enough to be worth pursuing. Whether this� profit lies in actual ore extraction within the next decade, or merely� in stock futures, it is too early to tell. Some observers have� suggested that the mine proposal is merely a ploy by a group with a� hidden agenda; if such is the case, it is already a rather elaborate� and expensive one. The seriousness of the proposal will only become� apparent once permit applications are filed. If and when this happens,� it will be up to the citizens of the Chequamegon Bay area to be� watchdogs and insure that all possible steps are being taken to avoid� adverse impacts to the area's ecosystems.