By Eric Hjerstedt Sharp
Critics of the proposed Gogebic Taconite open pit iron mine in Ashland and Iron counties can breathe a little easier ... for a while.
State Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said Monday he had heard rumors that Gogebic Taconite company officials in Milwaukee had closed the Hurley office and were not proceeding with exploration plans until the Wisconsin legislature rewrites the state’s review process law that could conceivably speed up the state’s permitting requirements for mining.
The Ojibwe Times called immediately called G-Tac’s Hurley office, and although the company’s voice mail system was still working, company officials did not call back prior to press time. However, a Tuesday Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story confirmed that the company would not be proceeding with test drilling that it had recently said it would be starting along an iron ore deposit from Mellen to Upson, roughly following Wisconsin Hwy. 77.
G-TAC official J. Matthew Fifield, told Journal-Sentinel reporter Lee Bergquist that the company “is poised to spend $20 million to $30 million on the next phase of the project - but only if legislation addressing the specific needs of open-pit mining of iron ore is signed into law, he said.
"For us to move forward, we need iron mining laws," Fifield said.
Company officials have claimed the project would employ 700 workers with an average base pay of $60,000. While it had received support from economic development and business groups, the proposed mine didn’t fare as well with environmentalists or Bad River Tribal officials and citizens.
Critics of recent proposed legislation that would speed up the permitting process included Bad River Tribe Chair Mike Wiggins and environmental leaders throughout the state. Wiggins and others criticized the proposed project and permitting process that they say severely threatened ground and surface water surrounding the Bad River that flows into the reservation. They also criticized the proposed permitting legislation that downstate Republicans were drafting in Madison that would take away local governments’ say in determining safe mining standards and other concerns.
Herbster activist Frank Koehn had recently formed a citizens’ group called the Penokee Hills Education Project (PHEP), sponsored by the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization based in Ashland, to address “fast-track proposal(s) to begin iron ore (taconite) mining” in the area (See story, this issue). Members and other environmentalists had planned on attending a meeting tonight at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to discuss the G-Tac project although it was not known if news of the postponement had changed their plans.
“G-Tac tried to change the mining laws to give them unlimited and free access to the waters of the Bad River watershed so they could make billions of dollars,” Koehn said.
Koehn and others are critical that G-Tac had a large amount of input into the process with Republican legislators.
Jauch also criticized the first draft and G-Tac’s dominant role in helping with its drafting. However, Jauch was involved in the rewriting of the bill, and told The Ojibwe Times last month that improvements in the second draft had been made that would give locals more of a say in land use planning.
The draft was never finished, however, and will almost surely not be introduced this session which ends June 30.
“(The) GOP has said it is possible that legislation could be considered in the fall,” Jauch said.