A group of northern Wisconsin residents has filed a lawsuit alleging a company looking to dig a huge iron mine near Lake Superior needed a permit before it launched exploratory excavations last month.
The lawsuit argues the Department of Natural Resources' failure to require Gogebic Taconite to obtain a storm water permit resulted in no safeguards to reduce potential pollution as snow melt and rain runs off excavation debris. The lawsuit demands a judge declare a permit is necessary and order the DNR to force Gogebic Taconite to mitigate any environmental damage.
"They want the DNR told that's not the way to do this. But they're also very concerned about the impending damage to the environment," the group's attorney, former Midwest Environmental Advocates lawyer Dennis Grzezinski, said. "The snow hasn't melted and the rains haven't come. There's time for folks to take some steps."
The group filed the lawsuit Monday in Iron County. The state Justice Department is representing the DNR in the case; an agency spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday. Gogebic Taconite spokesman Bob Seitz didn't immediately return telephone messages.
Gogebic Taconite is looking dig a 4½-mile long iron mine in the Penokee Hills near Mellen. The project has become one of the most bitterly debated outdoors issues Wisconsin has grappled with in years.
Supporters insist the mine will bring jobs to the economically depressed region. Opponents, including the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, fear the mine will pollute one of the last pristine areas in the state. Republican lawmakers added to the furor last year when they passed a law relaxing state regulations to help jump-start the mine.
The company notified the DNR last summer it wanted to begin exploratory excavations. It applied for a storm water permit in December to cover removing 2,400 tons of rock from three sites. The application included building a new access road.
In February the company changed its plan, saying it wanted to perform the work while the ground was still frozen to minimize environmental disturbances and negate the need to build any new roads. The DNR told the company it wouldn't need any permits under those conditions.
Larry Lynch, a DNR hydro-geologist, said the company began excavations on Feb. 17 and wrapped up the work about 10 days later. The company has since moved on to reclamation work, including filling in the holes, redistributing disturbed topsoil and covering it with mulch. Company officials expect to complete that work within the next few days.
The residents group, which includes four Bad River tribal members, argued in their lawsuit that the excavation presents significant risk of contaminated runoff during the spring thaw.
The lack of a permit requirement allowed Gogebic Taconite to proceed without putting in safeguards such as analyzing surface waters that could be affected by runoff, mitigation measures and water monitoring, they said. That will result in a skewed baseline for measuring the mine's impacts on those waters, they contended.
Iron County Circuit Judge Patrick Madden drew the case. A check of online court records Wednesday afternoon showed Madden hadn't set any appearances or set up a briefing schedule.