It’s not your grandfather’s iron mine: How the Gogebic mine fits northern Wisconsin
Name the industry in which you would expect to find the following science and technology professionals: chemical engineers, computer programmers, computer systems analysts, electrical engineers, environmental scientists, geochemists, geo-engineers, geophysicists, drafting technologists, metallurgical engineers, and quality control engineers.
If you answered “mining,” you would be correct. Unfortunately, you won’t find those jobs anytime soon in Wisconsin unless the state injects more certainty into its laws governing the construction and operation of open-pit mines.
A proposal to mine iron ore in northern Wisconsin’s Gogebic range is on hold until the Legislature can review state laws that mining proponents say are open-ended and which invite unreasonable delay – even if mines meet federal and state environmental standards.
Gogebic Taconite holds an option on mineral rights for 22,000 acres covering 22 miles of a mountain range known as the Gogebic, or Penokee, that runs through northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mining could begin within five years in a 4.5-mile stretch between Mellen and Upson, an area that straddles Wisconsin’s Ashland and Iron counties, but only if the state lends more certainty to the permitting process.
On the surface, the dispute appears to be a classic debate between people who want economic growth and those who worry about harming the environment. But this debate is unlike mining disputes in other locations, including Wisconsin’s long-dormant Crandon mine proposal, for some pertinent scientific reasons.
The Gogebic mine would be an iron oxide mine, extracting iron ore using water and magnets, and not a sulfide mine, which uses separating chemicals that can produce long-lasting environmental damage.
“Sulfide mining extracts copper, nickel, and other metals from sulfide ores. The environmental risks are much different from traditional iron ore mining. Here’s just one reason why: when rain falls on the waste from iron mining, it makes rust; when rain falls on sulfide ore waste, sulfuric acid is produced.”
That quote comes not from corporate mining interests, but from the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota, a state that has learned to safely and profitably extract iron ore.
That’s not to say all iron mines are automatically safe, but they can be responsibly managed within known parameters using the latest technologies. For example, recycling and processing techniques can discharge water that won’t harm downstream fisheries, wild rice beds, and other natural areas. Early indications show that waste rock from the Gogebic mine would not include high sulfide levels that could endanger water quality, although further tests are needed to confirm that geologic fact.
At stake: perhaps the largest economic development opportunity to hit northern Wisconsin in a century.
The mine would create 700 direct mining jobs and stimulate 2,800 other jobs in a 12-county region, generating $604 million per year for the regional economy, according to a report by Madison-based NorthStar Economics Inc.
Average pay and benefits would total nearly $83,000 per year, the range for similar mines in Minnesota and Michigan, with a total mine payroll of $58 million per year. The first phase of the mine could generate $17.2 million per year in state and local tax revenues. Construction of the mine, which would cost $1.5 billion, would support 3,175 jobs over two years.
Because it holds one of the largest known iron reserves in the world, the mine could operate at least 35 years and perhaps much longer.
It adds up to a vital boost for a region where the population is poorer, older, and less educated than people in Wisconsin as a whole. Median household income in Iron County, for example, is 32% below the statewide average. One quarter of the population is 65 and older compared to 14% statewide. About 15% of the people in Iron County hold a college degree, compared to 25.7% statewide.
The boom would extend to other sectors, ranging from restaurants and trucking services to the railroad industry, construction, hospitals, and retail stores. Because a surprising number of mining jobs are scientific or technical in nature, the region would stand a better chance of stimulating spin-off businesses or attracting other professionals.
Some lawmakers believed the mining law revisions proposed in the spring were rushed, but the Legislature should have ample time to reasonably assess those regulations by the fall. Environmental excellence and job creation need not be mutually exclusive goals, especially in a state with the expertise to accomplish both.
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