A case where lengthier permitting is permissible

I usually join the chorus that complains about local permitting processes, especially when the objections spring from personal whim, not legal underpinnings, but proposed iron ore mining near Hurley, Wis. is one case where a little time and care is an absolute necessity, if for no other reason than a way of life could be impacted.

With the economy teetering on the brink of a double dip recession, and with claims that 700 new jobs, not including construction jobs, would be created in a region whose residents have a much lower median household income than the statewide average, it has been tempting for state officials to expedite approval, through streamlined permitting, of an open pit mining operation in northern Wisconsin’s Gogebic Range.

Gogebic Taconite, an iron ore mining company, holds an option on mineral rights for 22,000 acres of the Gogebic mountain range in northern Wisconsin and in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Mining could begin in the next several years on a 4.5-mile stretch that includes parts of Ashland and, not coincidentally, Iron counties.

While the proposal is on hold as the state Legislature reviews state laws that allegedly result in unreasonable delays even if the mines meet state and federal environmental standards, another consideration has come to light that argues for more time and care. The Bad River band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which is seeking approval from the EPA to set water standards on tribal properties, has not yet given its benediction to open pit mining on a range of hills in the Bad River watershed.

These are people who live off the land, so their concern is understandable. As one tribal leader noted at a Capitol news conference: “This is where we live. We can't just pack up and move.”

But unlike the ill-fated Crandon mine, which would have relied on separating chemicals that cause environment damage, the Gogebic mine would extract minerals using water and magnets. When it rains on waste from iron mining, it makes rust, not sulfuric acid, which is one of the reasons Minnesota has been able to safely extract iron ore under accepted parameters.

Still, the potential impact on water, fisheries, and other natural amenities like wild rice beds, which the Bad River tribe cultivates, will have to be carefully examined, especially the potential for acid deposition in the rock to leach into surface water and groundwater.

While I’ve had my disagreements with Gov. Walker’s approach to fixing the state budget, I appreciate his zeal to create the conditions under which economic growth, and job creation, can become more robust. And while I’m increasingly skeptical of the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra spewed by politicians every time they want to pass legislation, mining does create jobs in a variety of good-paying professions – from computer programmers to geo-engineers.

If job creation and the resulting expansion of tax base can happen without serious environmental impacts, by all means proceed with the project. But this area of northern Wisconsin reportedly has enough iron ore for mining operations to take place for more than three decades, so there is nothing wrong with taking a reasonable amount of extra time to make sure.