ALEC-driven Gogebic Taconite open-pit mine legislation doomed even after Walker signed it into law

Imagine a shipbuilder constructing a new boat that has within its design holes in the hull that will sink the vessel as it enters the water. Imagine an aircraft company building a plane that has wings that fall off once 20-mile-per-hour winds come into play as it attempts to leave the runway. Stupid, right?

So imagine a group of Republican legislators coin-operated by the many propaganda arms and billions of dollars from the Koch Brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), DC Beltway rat Grover Norquist, the Carlyle Group and others trying to push through certainly unconstitutional, environmentally careless mining deregulation legislation doomed to be in costly litigation for years before the first digging the proposed largest open-pit iron-ore mine in the world.

It’s bound to make lots of lawyers very happy and the pricey kickbacks for the Republicans who support the legislation will keep them primed for more extremist legislation down the political road. Getting rid of many historic environmental mining standards involving wetlands, groundwater, rock disposal that even moderate Republicans in the past supported is so easy when the current Republicans are bought and paid for.

Add to the absolute irony (no pun intended) about the iron-ore mine, the billionaire carpetbagger behind the whole mining project (and gave $8,000 to Scott Walker in 2010), Chris Cline, rents out his swanky 164-foot yacht “Mine Games” (featuring five staterooms and a two-person submarine) and has staked a claim with his Cline Group and Foresight Energy.

Thanks to the Wisconsin Republican Party, he and his company flacks flew to Wisconsin in his Gulfstream G550 jet and wrote the West Virginia Appalachia-style “Broad Form Deed” legislation. Getting rid of environmental protections while shutting the public out of the process which would harm the Wisconsin environment and leave landowners and local citizens to deal with the debris and acid mine drainage is what the legislation is designed for. As for his track record on polluting groundwater while doing other mining operations, climate change denialist Chris Cline can certainly be a little angry this news got out about problems with the Macoupin Energy’s Shay #1 Mine in Illinois:

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency formally notified Macoupin Energy in December that it believes the company is dragging its feet with the cleanup at the Shay 1 mine in Carlinville, Ill., according to government documents.

The agency said it plans to refer the case to the Illinois attorney general.

Macoupin is one of four mines owned in Illinois by billionaire Christopher Cline, who is proposing to build a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties if the Wisconsin Legislature rewrites mining laws to the company’s satisfaction.

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ALEC-funded Republican sellouts hundreds of miles away from the mine that vote for this legislation can giggle that they got paid like common whores in the street after doing a trick in a haunted barn. That’s the greed-soaked hegemony and legacy of the Scott Walker GOP.

Cline Group’s Wisconsin-based subsidiary Gogebic Taconite’s proposed $1.5 billion open pit iron mine in the Penokee Range south of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin’s Ashland and Iron counties has run into problems in the recent past. It’s been a hard sell saying the mining project would last 35 years and create 700 direct mining jobs over that period, although further evidence shows that less than 100 jobs would be created for Wisconsin workers. With automation and use of newer robot technology, the actual job numbers could be considerably less.

Despite the jobs numbers, the open pit mine has very real consequences for environmental disaster in the region around it.

Due to the proposed mine being upstream from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal reservation, the Bad River and Kakagon watershed sloughs, traditional wild rice harvesting and waterways would be inflicted and contaminated with cancer-causing heavy metals, asbestos, lead, arsenic, mercury, sulfide deposits in waste rock causing acid mine drainage,sulfuric acid and toxic runoff and other factors.

You can get a good understanding of what’s at risk (Nature Conservancy study) in the region where the World’s largest open-pit iron-ore mine is being proposed:

Why This Place is Special

The Penokee-Gogebic Range consists of two steep, parallel ridges that dominate the local landscape rising 1,200 feet above nearby Lake Superior. The topography of the area and the variety of soil conditions result in a wide range of habitat that supports a diverse group of species and natural communities.

It’s the Water

  • Seventy-one miles of rivers and intermittent streams flow through the proposed mining area, emptying into the Bad River and the eventually into Lake Superior.
  • The surface and groundwater originating from the Penokee Range is the source of drinking water for the municipalities of Ashland, Mellen, Highbridge, Marengo, Odanah and Upson.
  • Portions of many of these waterways—including the Bad, Potato and Tyler Forks rivers—are designated as Exceptional or Outstanding Resource Waters, meaning they are among the highest quality rivers in Wisconsin, having good water quality, providing outstanding recreational opportunities and supporting valuable fisheries and wildlife habitat.

It’s the Wetlands

  • The proposed mining area embodies a large portion of the headwaters of the Bad River watershed, which supports the 16,000-acre Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs, the largest undeveloped wetland complex in the upper Great Lakes.
  • These Sloughs have cultural significance – they support the largest natural wild rice bed in the Great Lakes basin and members of the Bad River Band have harvested wild rice here for centuries.
  • The Sloughs and streams that feed the wetland system like the Bad and Kakagon rivers, and Bear Trap and Wood creeks all depend on surface and ground water that originates in the Penokee Range.
  • The Sloughs are home to many threatened and endangered species such as the trumpeter swan, bald eagle, piping plover, wood turtle and ram’s-head lady-slipper orchid.

It’s the Forests

  • The proposed mining area encompasses nearly 35 square miles of northern hardwood forest, which has been managed for hardwood timber production, including maple and yellow birch, for decades.
  • Because the majority of the land is enrolled in Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law, it is open for public recreation, including hunting, hiking, and snowmobiling.
  • It links the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin to the Ottawa National Forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, connecting a 40-mile stretch of continuous forest cover for wide-ranging mammals like gray wolves and rare American martens and breeding populations of migratory songbirds.

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Other factors like tourism in the pristine area would certainly be affected by the world’s largest open-pit iron-ore mine. That would be a hard sell for a vacation getaway unless you want to catch dead fish and perhaps poison yourself with the deadly water runoff.

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is a sovereign nation having equal status to the State of Wisconsin when it comes to air and water quality enforcement. They have been fighting multinational mining interests several times and their resistance is a fascinating and inspirational story:

Native resistance to multinational mining corporations in Wisconsin has been growing in northern Wisconsin for over two decades. It started in 1975 when Exxon discovered the large Crandon zinc-copper sulfide deposit in Forest County, one mile upstream of the wild rice beds of the Mole Lake Chippewa (Ojibwe) Reservation, five miles downwind of the Forest County Potawatomi Reservation, and 40 miles (via the Wolf River) upstream of the Menominee Nation.

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mine-map

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates costs of managing the mine would cost taxpayers funding ranging from $550,000 to $3.8 million per year to maintain environmental standards in the process of building the mine. They describe the projected mine in detail:

The Penokee/Gogebic deposit is generally defined as the 21-mile western end of the 60-mile long Gogebic Iron Range, which stretches east to west from Lake Gogebic, Mich., to Mineral Lake, Wis. The deposit is steeply dipping (between 40 and 90 degrees north, averaging 65 degrees) and contains 20-30 percent iron in the form of magnetite. Because the iron ore in this deposit is of lower grade than the natural hematitic ores previously mined in northern Wisconsin, the ore must be concentrated and processed into taconite pellets prior to shipping to a smelter.

Most of the surface and mineral rights are currently owned by the LaPointe Iron Company, which has optioned potential development of the deposit to Gogebic Taconite, LLC. The mining company is currently focusing potential development on a four-mile stretch between the Tyler Forks River and Ballou Creek. If developed, it would be an open pit mine.

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In terms of following the money where this mining project’s interests purchase politicians, look no further than to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s research:

Topping the list of those who received campaign cash from interests that back mining deregulation was veteran Republican Senator Alberta Darling of River Hills who accepted $467,293. Darling spent a record $1.23 million during the 2011 recall elections to keep her job. Darling was followed by the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate – one of the four legislative campaign committees Democratic and Republican Senate and Assembly leaders use to rake in special interest cash to spend at election time – which raised $313,413. GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, who was a recall target in 2012, rounded out the top three raising $262,735.

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All the money funding the usual suspects will probably be stopped by international treaties that the Bad River Tribe will bring about in legal battles when Scott Walker signs the mining legislation.

The tribes believe the protections in the treaties also extend to air and water quality, said Jim Zorn, executive administrator of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Those protections, Zorn said, extend to all of the ceded territory — roughly the land in the northern third of the state on which tribes reserved the right to hunt, fish and gather. The mine would be built well within ceded territory in the Penokee Hills, meaning that if there is a chance it could damage air or water quality, it could be subject to legal challenges under the treaties.

“The tribes’ view is, what good is the right to fish if you’ve destroyed the water?” Zorn said.

The tribes’ legal standing is even more far reaching if a project outside the reservation is shown to have the potential to pollute water or air within the reservation boundaries, Stoddard said. Just as Wisconsin would be in violation of federal laws if it polluted waters in an adjacent state, federal treaties and the tribe’s status as a sovereign nation could be invoked in court if the state allows pollution from the mine to flow into reservation waters, Zorn said.

Because the Bad River tribe is sovereign, it can also set its own water quality standards. That right was upheld in the 1980s when Wisconsin challenged tougher water standards set by the Mole Lake tribe. Treaty protections played an important role when Mole Lake fought a mine near its reservation proposed by Exxon Minerals in the late 1980s. Exxon eventually withdrew its application for a mining permit.

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There is also the issue that the careless mining legislation is in direct violation of the Public Trust Doctrine, part of Wisconsin’s State Constitution under Article IX, which states that rivers and lakes belong to the public and should be protected:

SECTION 1. The state shall have concurrent jurisdiction on all rivers and lakes bordering on this state so far as such rivers or lakes shall form a common boundary to the state and any other state or territory now or hereafter to be formed, and bounded by the same; and the river Mississippi and the navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence, and the carrying places between the same, shall be common highways and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of the state as to the citizens.

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There are many places to check out what can be done. Some links include the Sierra Club, the League Of Conservation Voters, Madison for the Penokees, Save the Water’s Edge, Bad River Watershed Association, Save Our Sky Blue Waters, Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission and others locating in the Links section on this site.

Update:

On March 11, Governor Walker signed the doomed legislation at Oldenburg Group Inc., a Rhinelander mining equipment manufacturer, a hundred miles from where the actual mining site would be. The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa will certainly file a lawsuit that will tie up the project for years in legal battles.

It’s far from over.

Gogebic would have to receive permits from the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Also, a mine would have to meet water quality standards of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Its reservation is downstream on the shore of Lake Superior.

Lawsuits are also likely. The bill could run contrary to the state’s Public Trust Doctrine, which generally prohibits harming public waters of the state.

Also, environmentalists used the courts in the early 1990s to challenge construction of a copper mine along the Flambeau River, saying the mine would harm two rare clam species and a rare species of dragonfly.

The Bad River could also object to the mine on water quality grounds for what they say is the failure of state officials to consult with them before making changes in state law that could harm their reservation.

Gogebic has been discussing exploratory drilling with the DNR in recent weeks. The company is expected to ask for a permit to conduct test borings on the property on which it has an option for mineral rights. Borings from the property’s owner and other sources have shown considerable iron ore in the rock, Gogebic officials have said.

Ann Coakley, the DNR’s top mining regulator, said that the Gogebic will have to do considerable work before they submit an application.

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A great statement from Wisconsin Representative Fred Clark at the time of the signing tells what is really going on:

MADISON – State Representative Fred Clark (D-Sauk City) issued the following statement prior to Governor Scott Walker’s signing of Senate Bill 1 (SB1) in Rhinelander and Milwaukee this afternoon:

“As Governor Walker signs SB1 into law, citizens around Wisconsin continue to wonder whether our state government works for us all, or just for well-connected special interests. By passing this controversial and deeply unpopular bill, the Governor and legislative leaders have made it clear that the wishes of out-of-state special interests are more important than the huge majority of Wisconsin citizens who have opposed this bill. I challenge anyone to find a more blatant example in Wisconsin history of a major public policy that was custom-written by and for a single corporation than SB1.

“It is tragic and ironic that enactment of SB1 makes it even less likely that responsible iron mining and the family-supporting jobs it could support would ever occur in Wisconsin. The real legacy of this legislation is that it re-fuels the controversy and bitter division that has engulfed Wisconsin since 2011. It appears that once again the Governor’s primary tactic in major policy is to “divide and conquer”. That’s a failure of leadership that continues to drag Wisconsin to the bottom in actual job creation.

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Walker continues to be merely an errand boy for the Far-Right and is looking out for his career and political ambition over the responsibility of good governance.