I wish for my children, and eventually their children, to have a safe and healthy community.
The Penokee Hills are part of a 21-mile long stretch of ancient iron-bearing rock spanning Ashland and Iron counties. The hills themselves are a thickly forested ecosystem with a web of streams and wetlands, which pour through canyons and waterfalls to meet the mighty Lake Superior in a vast coastal wetland complex nicknamed "Wisconsin's Everglades."
These sloughs are a magical place, an internationally-renowned feeding stop for migratory birds and the largest contiguous wild rice beds left on the world's largest freshwater lake. The sloughs and rice beds are also the sacred homeland of the Bad River Tribe of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Tyler Forks (left) and the Penokee Hills (right). Both areas would be completely demolished if the proposed mine is built.
In 2011, Gogebic Taconite (GTac) announced its intention to build an open pit mine in the Penokee Hills to extract taconite, a low-grade iron ore. The mine would initially be over four miles long, half a mile wide and 1,000 feet deep, with the potential to grow to up to 21 miles long. Even at its smallest, this would be the largest open-pit taconite mine in the world, essentially gutting the heart of the Penokee Hills and clogging the water-bearing arteries that feed the coastal wetlands.
Initially GTac claimed they had no desire to circumvent Wisconsin's existing mining laws, yet it became evident that the company, for all intents and purposes, wrote its own law and then persuaded lawmakers to pass it. Recent court records disclosed that nearly $1 million in donations were made by GTac to candidates and political action committees to persuade lawmakers to pass a mining bill tailor-made to streamline the permitting of ferrous (iron) mining.
The new mining law
- sped up permitting deadlines
- weakened public input
- rolled back protections for the area's water, land and air, and
- limited the revenues local communities could collect to offset the cost of extractive industries to their staff and infrastructure.
The first version of the bill was narrowly defeated in 2011, but eventually passed in 2013. Another bill passed in 2013 locked the public out of county forest lands to which they normally would have access.
The state has also failed to consult with the Bad River Tribe as a sovereign government whose tribal reservation is located just six miles downstream from the proposed site. Additionally, the mine would be built in the Ceded Territories of Wisconsin, where federal treaties protect Indian fishing, hunting and harvesting rights. The Bad River tribe is currently working with the federal government to do what the state of Wisconsin has failed to do.
GTac is still early in the application process for the mine and faces formidable logistical challenges. Scientists have discovered asbestiform rock at the mine site, triggering health concerns. Geologists contend that waste rock that would be generated by mining may create acid mine drainage once it is exposed to air.
In September 2014, GTac announced plans to delay its application for a permit to mine, and to scale back the mine to just Iron County. Observers believe this change of plans grows out of intense public scrutiny of the proposed mine, and GTac's realization of the complex water impacts that iron mining presents at that location. GTac, however, remains publicly adamant that they intend to continue with the mine, and citizens around the state remain equally committed to a fair and transparent permitting process at all levels of government.