Tensions between the Gogebic Taconite mining company and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources rose to new heights last week in a public dispute over how much regulatory authority remains in the agency’s hands under a 2013 law that rolled back environmental restrictions to make iron mining easier.

The company objected to a DNR research document that listed environmental hazards of mining, and it has sharply criticized the extent of agency questions about plans to dig up rock for testing.

But the dispute over what is allowed and what isn’t under the untested mining law may be a preview of what is to come when the company seeks state permission for an open pit mine that would stretch 4 1/2 miles long and 800 feet deep in the forested hills of Iron and Ashland counties.

“All of the tests and modeling we’ve done cost money,” said company spokesman Bob Seitz. “(Some studies cost) tens of thousands of dollars a crack. So this should be about what’s necessary and not what’s wanted to satisfy curiosity.”

DNR officials said they were a little puzzled by a strongly worded letter the company wrote saying the agency was going too far, but they will continue to ask questions that need asking to ensure that the environment is protected and to provide information to the public.

“I was surprised that they took it so hard,” said Ann Coakley, one of the DNR’s key managers for the mine project. “We will always be here with a smile and a ‘How can we help you?’”

Delays

Act 1 of 2013 rewrote the rules for iron mining by imposing deadlines for DNR reviews of permit applications. It also eliminated the need for a full environmental impact statement or a permit for bulk sampling.

But a bulk sampling plan — which will determine some of the machinery needed to extract the ore — is required. Seven months have passed since the company first submitted its initial plan.

Seitz said rounds and rounds of questions from the DNR have delayed the sampling operation. The deadline for deciding if the plan is complete has been extended each time the agency requested more information.

The back-and-forth is documented in letters between the company and the state that are posted on a DNR website. The letters show the longest delay came when the company waited until Nov. 25 to respond to questions the DNR posed on Aug. 13, said DNR project manager Larry Lynch.

Lynch said the initial sampling plan delivered too little detail, even under relaxed provisions of the new law.

Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat whose district includes the mine site, said the company is using “bullying” tactics.

“It isn’t the DNR’s fault that Gogebic wrote their first application in crayon and didn’t hire consultants until after filing it,” said Jauch, referring to the company’s original bulk sampling plan.

Gogebic Taconite’s tough tone will backfire if the DNR is forced to deny the company’s final mining permit because the company fails to provide needed data within the new law’s tightened timeline for decision by the state, Jauch said.

Seitz acknowledged that the company has caused some delays, but he said the more important problem is an overzealous DNR.

Requests refused

In a Jan. 8 letter to the DNR that was released last week, company engineer Tim Myers answered most of the DNR’s latest questions but said the law didn’t require him to provide all the information requested on topics including how hazardous sulphide and asbestos-like minerals would be identified and tested.

“The additional information requested in your December 20 letter goes far beyond any additional information that would be needed,” Myers said in the letter.

He described preliminary testing of small quantities of rock that he said found little if any potential for devastating acid drainage from sulfide. And he dismissed UW-Madison laboratory testing that found asbestiform grunerite in a rock from the site. The DNR maintains that the tests confirmed the presence of asbestiform minerals, which is associated with high cancer rates among mine workers. Myers said the tests aren’t valid because they weren’t done by “an experienced person who has compared thousands of fiber analyses.”

Myers refused a DNR request that as soon as bulk sampling is completed the company share documented results of testing to detect sulfides and asbestos-like fibers.

“GTAC will document its bulk sampling findings in any future required filings, such as the environmental impact report” required before a final mining permit is issued, Myers’ letter states. “No other advance filings of the results of the bulk sampling are required.”

Myers pointed out that the 2013 iron mining law eliminated the need for the company to obtain a permit for bulk sampling.

Scientific review

Seitz said a DNR review of scientific literature on iron mining showed bias by some in the agency because the report listed the potential hazards without waiting for the company to fully analyze the mine site.

DNR officials said the 103-page report was compiled by the agency’s science services bureau to brief regulators on peer-reviewed studies of mines. The report describes extensive testing and monitoring that can minimize or prevent damage, for example, from sulfuric acid runoff into streams and from dangerous mercury emissions into the air when ore is processed.

Seitz pointed to a report on the conservative Media Trackers website saying that one of the report’s nine authors, a Northland College geoscience professor, misidentified a rock sample from the mine site.

Tom Fitz has said he found asbestiform grunerite in several spots on the mine site, but last week he conceded he was partially wrong about one sample he sent to a lab at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Fitz said the lab manager told him the sample wasn’t grunerite.

But Fitz said the rocks he found all contain slender fibers that appear to be asbestiform material, which can occur in minerals other than grunerite that are found around iron deposits.

Fitz, the company and the DNR agree on one thing: More laboratory testing is needed to determine if significant quantities of the fibers are present.

But Seitz and Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Hazelhurst Republican who has championed legislation to help Gogebic Taconite, said Fitz’s involvement with the DNR review of mining research shows the report is biased.

Tiffany said he viewed Gogebic Taconite’s frustration with the DNR as justified. But he said strong disagreements were part of the normal give and take in mine permitting.

Steven Verburg is a reporter covering politics with a focus on environmental issues for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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(27) comments

WI_Expat

Concerned,

Your post is not germane to the topic of this article.

If you wish to talk about another article, they to still exist if you would just use the search feature.

concerned_citizen

wonder how Kleefisch and Eisenga are getting along these days?

must be tough when you write legislation specifically for large campaign "donors"
whether people or "corporate people"
and then things don't go as well as you'd hoped
even when still in the honeymoon phase

mzd
mzd

Or maybe the whole incident has been staged to convince us that the DNR will actually do its job. ;-)

Ex_Madisonian

Is GTac really that ignorant? They are already whining about "10s of thousands of dollars"? Gee... how many MILLIONS of dollars are the taxpayers of Wisconsin going to spend to clean up their mess? How many MILLIONS of dollars is it worth to fight the Army Corp of Engineers, the Tribes and the EPA? Well, at least the ignorant statements form GTac gave me a really good laugh today... I really cannot stop laughing. They think that a few thousand dollars to the right politicians will ensure their pet project goes through at any cost to the public. Boy, are they in for a rude awakening.

TroutBum

I'm shocked!! Shocked to hear there may indeed be some tension between Gogebic and the people who actually live, work, vacation, and own the natural resources of this state.
I've camped, hiked, paddled and fished those woods, lakes, and streams for 40 years. It kills a piece of me to imagine it with the scar of an open pit iron mine on it.
I have one question I've never heard asked. Is there a shortage of iron in the world that justifies the destruction of such a valuable resource?? I've never heard of it.
Cram the mine.
Stop the attack on local control of frac sand operations.
Get 2 people to vote that normally don't next November, and send Walker, the republicans, and their Koch brother masters packing.

196ski
196ski

"I have one question I've never heard asked. Is there a shortage of iron in the world that justifies the destruction of such a valuable resource??"

Iron ore is not a global commodity. The cost of transportation limits a countries ability to import or export.
Australia is going thru a huge expansion in iron ore mining, their ore primarily feeds China. The US does not import iron ore. Our reserves are concentrated in the Range in MN, across N. Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan. Active mining is taking place on the Range and in the UP near Marquette. Ore is then shipped via the Great lakes to steel mills in Canada and the US. There are hundreds of thousands of jobs tied to the industry. Cliffs is closing one mine in the UP as its reserves are near exhaustion but another is still viable. I am unsure of the reserve status of ore in MN. Currently the cost of ore is depressed due mainly to the depressed economy but this industry takes the long view of demand. G-Tac is making a billion dollar investment in this mine and will probably not see a profit for over 10 years.

Disclaimer, I have no ties to G-Tac or iron ore mining. I have two family members, one who works on the ore docks in Duluth and Two Harbors and another who works in the steel industry. I am not familiar enough with the exact location or the changes to Wisconsin's mining laws to comment. I worked as a project engineer and did the environmental permitting for a mine in NE Wisconsin. Whatever changes Wisconsin has made they cannot trump Federal law for clean and water standards. Mining is what we do, it is the foundation of our civilization, it isn't pretty but when done correctly the impact on the environment can be minimized.

hankdog

ski:

Could you tell us which mine (only metallic mines count) you worked on the permitting? Crandon is the only one in the last 50+ years that got so far as preliminary permitting, and that didn't go far. And that was an entirely different situation with different problems. Thanks

196ski
196ski

Why?
I worked with nonmetallic mining.

hankdog

Just wanted to make sure you were comparing apples to oranges so all the other readers will know, that's all. Permitting for non-metallic is a far cry from what will be the issues at GTac.

196ski
196ski

Apples and oranges would be comparing copper and zinc mining and extraction to iron ore mining. You have to go closer to Lake Superior where Rio Tinto and others are investing millions in mining copper, zinc and gold to compare to Crandon.

They will either be able to meet the conditions of the permit or they will not. I have no more idea as to whether this can be commercially viable than you or anyone else does. I do know that this is a potential billion dollar private investment and they aren't going to risk that cash if they can't make this work within the mandates of State and Federal law.

As for the permitting it won't be that different. All the same steps, all the same reviews and if they can't meet air and water quality standards the mining will not take place. Your a classy guy hank.

hankdog

ski:

So you are saying that permitting a non-metallic mine in the NE part of the state will have the same permitting requirements as GTac? Come on now, get serious. How big was your mine, maybe 200-300 acres if it is GAF in Marinette Cty, but that has nowhere near the size or issues as GTac.

I have never been considered "classy" at least by my definition, but then neither have I intentionally tried to mislead the readers of this post.

And my disclaimer. I am not a regulator anymore, but still work in the industry. I am not opposed to GTac if done properly. And the changes in the mining law did nothing to speed up the process (as DNR and COE warned) but has made what used to be a cooperative process between state and federal agencies into a process with a multitude of players all on different time lines. See letter COE to DNR.

array1

We already know G-tac won't find anything of concern in their sampling. Not sure why they're even bothering with the effort.

array1

The conservatives rewrite of the mining law stinks just as much as Kleefishes bill to help his millionaire friend reduce child support.

spooky tooth

Studies, regulations and inspections get in the way of business, just ask the folks in WVA.

Crow Barr
Crow Barr

Are you saying that the violator's can then go "bankrupt" sticking "We the people?"

spooky tooth

That's the way the way the mining game is played Crow Bar.

Ringsaker

I am impressed with the statements and actions by DNR staff, but not so much for the individuals, but instead for the Department.

I am a former DNR employee and keep in touch with several staff, including some who are involved with this project.

People at this level of the Department only speak or release reports if they are approved by the administrators, a practice that has gone on for decades and is especially strict in these times.

Thus, the statements being made and the actions being taken are those with backing from the top and it is clear to me that the top administrators of the DNR also have great doubts of this project.

Ringsaker

I am impressed with the statements and actions of DNR staff on this issue, but I don't credit the individuals so much, but instead the Department.

I am a former DNR employee and keep in close touch with various staff, including several involved with this project.

The staff is kept on a short leash by the administrators, and would only make public statements if they were approved by the top. (This has been true for decades, by the way.)

Thus, it is also the top administrators who are having deep doubts about this project, not just those whose names appear in articles.

witness2012

The DNR scientists are not making public statements- they are simply posting all the correspondence between the DNR and the mining company representatives.

On the other hand, when DNR officials gave a copy of their compilation of potential environmental threats/risks of taconite mining to GTAC executives, they leaked it to MediaTrackers, the conservative media outlet who did a hit piece on the scientists who contributed to what should have been a non-controversial informational report.

The ad hominem attacks against respected scientists is evidence that any scientist that questions this mining project in any way is likely to be attacked for it.

I certainly hope you are right that, Stepp will back the DNR scientists when they are attacked by GTAC- which is inevitable- but I'm dubious, based on her past actions and statements.

magnum1
magnum1

Who cares about their money. These people are ruining our enviroment here and causing problems that cannot ever be fixed. If I were Governor I would send them with their bags packed and tell them to never come back.

geo_

What about the tensions between the citizens of Wisconsin and GTac mining. The irony is that the weakening of mining laws in Wisconsin will cost more and take longer because the US Army Corp. of Engineers can't work with the WDNR on this issue because of the weakened laws. The fact that a sound science report completed by WDNR is questioned by GTac makes one wonder about the competency of GTac. Regulators failed to do their job in West Texas where the fertilizer plant explosion led to the deaths of many, regulators failed to do their job in West Virginia where the leak of MCHM contaminated the water supply of hundreds of thousands Americans( terrorist could have only hoped to accomplish this), and now when regulators are doing their job GTac is angered? US corporations should be putting Americans before profit.

witness2012

I am extremely impressed with the professionalism and courage of Larry Lynch and Anne Coakley in the face of these intimidating tactics by GTAC. While state mining law has been weakened, they are still determined to do what they can to get answers from the mining company before they irrevocably destroy the Lake Superior watershed.

We also should acknowledge that the political appointees heading the DNR, Cathy Stepp and Bill Cosh, may retaliate against these long-serving professionals who won't just rubberstamp whatever GTAC hands them.

If you looked at the inadequate plans that GTAC turned in to the DNR and their "solutions" to prevent acid drainage into an area that has many wetlands and you listen to them quibble about what kind of asbestiform rock has been found in the proposed mining site, you should be filled with alarm.

Add to that the fact that Bill Williams, executive of GTAC, will soon have charges filed against him by the government of Spain because of his role in managing a mine project which polluted an aquifer with arsenic at Cobre Las Cruces copper mine in Seville, Spain and now doesn't want to answers questions here.

Thank god for DNR scientists like Lynch and Coakley. They are trying to protect us all and are doing so in the face of enormous pressure from unscrupulous legislators like Tiffany. They deserve our thanks.

S54k

This makes total sense since gogebic wrote the bill and it was passed without any of our republican legislators reading it. Obviously gogebic knows the law better than our law makers since they wrote it. And sure they're cranky about the DNR asking questions. They paid A LOT of money to tiffany and others for the privilege to rape natural resources without question. Where does the DNR get the nerve to do their own testing on state land? The law gogebic wrote does not allow for that. It's iron clad so any lawsuits will be frivolous. Can't wait to see how anyone defends this. The only defense for tiffany is to take the klefish route and first defend, than say he'll reconsider and the finally apologize. How many times are we going to allow these people to do stupid things at our expense?

gobi

Gogebic wants to permanently destroy Northern Wisconsin- I shed no tears for this company or the political prostitutes that let them write the mining laws. The next move by this legislature is to steal tax dollars and give it to private schools. People need to pay attention.

davea

What does Tiffany have against Wisconsin? I hope everyone who who elected this hack is real pround!

College Didn't Take
College Didn't Take

“We will always be here with a smile and a ‘How can we help you?’”

Does that apply to the Army Corps of Engineers, too? Cathy Stepp doesn't work for them.

mhazzard

"Gogebic" just a Bully think "Chris Christie" and "Bulletproof Paramilitary"...

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