Process flaws jeopardize mining bill

As with most issues these days, the proposed iron mine between Mellen and Upson in Northwest Wisconsin has become polarized and partisan. Isn’t there a better way to develop public policy on tough issues?
Most Republicans favor the Assembly bill that would eliminate some existing hurdles to launching a new mine. Most business people, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), favor the streamlined permitting process requested by Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) and its parent company, the Cline Group out of Florida. Environmentalists and many nature lovers up north are largely opposed to the bill. Democrats, who often identify with environmentalists, are torn, because the company has promised to invest $1.5 billion and create 700 jobs to operate the mine.
So, the politics surrounding this mine pivot around two deeply important priorities in Wisconsin: the need to rebuild the state’s damaged job base and its citizens’ reverence for precious lands and waters. Given the passion and complexity surrounding the proposed mine in the Penokee Range, an orderly and transparent political process should be paramount if consensus is to be reached.
The process so far has been anything but orderly and transparent.
Not surprisingly then, the bill lacks anything resembling consensus. Consider the ways in which the process was set up for polarity vs. consensus:
• The bill was put together behind closed doors by Republican assemblymen, some anonymous, with input from Gogebic and WMC. Democrats, Bad River native Americans and environmentalists had no voice in the draft. That one-sided process led to their outright opposition to the bill as proposed.
• A pre-draft hearing was held in Hurley, where signs around town read:
“Mining – Our History
Mining – Our Culture
Mining – Our Future”
A single post-introduction hearing was held in West Allis, a process blunder that infuriated locals on both sides of the mining issue in Iron and Ashland Counties. Pressure from two northern Democrats in the minority, who called their own hearing, prompted the Republicans to hurriedly call a much-needed second committee hearing in Hurley.
• Republicans, who, for now, control both houses of the legislature and governorship, plan to push the bill quickly to passage prior to almost-certain recall elections this spring.
That fast-track process may prove to be shortsighted. Building a mine is an elongated, multi-year project, and it is entirely possible that the GOP will not be in control of both houses and/or the governor’s chair come this fall. GTAC could run into many hurdles down the road raised by today’s opponents who have been shunted out of the process.
The point is: process is important. Gathering input from all affected parties takes more time up front, but could save road blocks later. The state senate appears to be taking a more deliberate approach.
Now, let’s be realistic: some environmentalists will oppose the mine whatever the safeguards, even as they drive their metal cars and see no hypocrisy in that. Other environmentalists have legitimate complaints about the proposed 360-day process and the potential end-arounds on protection of the Bad River and adjacent lakes, streams, rivers and groundwater in the watershed.
But an unending, indefinite permitting process, which environmental bureaucrats often engender, is not acceptable either. The company needs a timeline with some certainty.
On the other side, GeoTac has kept its cards tight to its chest on how it proposes to operate the mine in terms of tailings, water use and contamination. The company has put out lots of information on the potential economic benefits of the mine, but little on environmental impacts.
It is pushing hard to win the permitting changes before it tips its hand on its environmental management system (EMS). GeoTac would gain credibility if it disclosed its planned EMS now. They surely know now most of what they are going to do in that regard.
The state and the northern region need the jobs. The world needs the iron. But, we also need to protect our state’s waters and lands. There has to be a way to open the mine and have minimal long term impact on those natural resources. At least two other mines in Wisconsin have been operated without major environmental damage.
To get to sensible legislation, the state needs an open process so a reasonable compromise can be reached. That means a deliberate process, but not an unending one.
In the end, such a compromise means that no stakeholder will be completely happy with the final legislation. It also means the economy can move forward with acceptable trade-offs in terms of the environment.
(Disclosure: I am a director of WMC and The Nature Conservancy, which opposes the current bill, but am speaking for neither in this posting.)

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  • old baldy

    Word inside the industry is that G-TAC/Cline really don’t have the ability to bring this mine on-line.  They are more involved with coal down south, iron ore is a new  endeavor for them. That is one of the reasons that they have held any of the environmental information close to the chest- they haven’t done anything yet and don’t plan to.  The best they can hope for is getting the existing law softened up, then sell the mineral rights to somebody with the ability and experience to do the job.  Maybe that would be better for all involved.


    • Anonymous

      Hmmmmm. Interesting thesis.

  • James Rowen

    Hi, John; I put a link and an excerpt from your nicely-done post on my blog. You can send me a check for the hits you get today. Cheers, Jim – –

    • Anonymous

      A mutual admiration society?


  • Ted Rulseh

    Mr. Torinus – this commentary is absolutely spot on. I sure hope the legislative leaders take note and act accordingly.

    Ted J. Rulseh
    Manitowoc, Wis.

  • Bobbi Rongstad

    Thank you for a thoughtful commentary, John. I wish you had been in Hurley yesterday to present it yourself–immediately following the guy from WMC who spoke elegantly about what a perfect piece of legislation it is (almost like he wrote it). If you understand TNC’s concerns, you will agree with the position of the Bad River Watershed Association. Please check us out at I know you understand what a treasure of pristine forests and waterways we have here. Imagine if a bed of ore were discovered next to Little Bass Lake in Bayfield County. 

    • Anonymous

      Near our cottage? No way. Yes, if the mine is a go, it has to be done right in all regards.

      • Bobbi Rongstad

        That’s my point, John. You would not want a mine in your little piece of heaven. People have cabins and lake homes near the G-tac mine site, too. Places where you can enjoy every star in the sky because it’s so dark at night. And you can’t hear anything but the whisper of wind in the trees. But now they want to put a 900′ ft deep hole, 4 miles long in our pristine forest. And the lights will blaze all night. We will hear the rumble of huge conveyors and trucks and the talc-like dust will blow out over out lake. The Tyler Forks River that flows in and out of our 80 acre lake runs through the middle of the area marked for the tailing piles. My husband and I were married on top of a rock outcropping that will overlook the site. Now, instead of a peaceful, romantic place to share a bottle of wine, we’ll be overlooking a pit that’s 2/3 the size of Lake Winnebago. What is ‘done right’ when you have to destroy waterways and cut away ancient mountains to accomplish the task. Tell your lovely wife I said hello.

  • The Wall

    A COAL MINING company (taconite uses an incredible amount of electricity) buys cheap mining rights from an entity who flatly tells them about the regulations in place. This company then begins a program of buying legislative influence and MASSIVE public opinion campaign (including recruiting the President of the Wisconsin State Bar) just like the coal mining industry did while mountain top mining in Appalachia which destroyed an ecology and corrupted a political system beyond any foreseeable remedy. The intent is to bypass and not comply with the requirements in place. This is horribly wrong and completely unacceptable campaign is being condoned and endorsed by the Administration of Temporary Governor Scott Walker.Gogebic Taconite LLC… Wisconsin is CLOSED for your business.By contributing to politicians for regulatory laxness Gogebic demonstrates that it will not follow the rules. This company is precisely the profile to hide income out of state and overseas. In hiding from Wisconsin’s income tax they will compete against proper permit getting, real tax paying companies and force them to dubious accounting in order to “fairly compete” all that after Gogebic buys an abbreviated approval process.
    Even if the approval process is burdensome, it was burdensome when they paid for mining rights. Had the approval process not been burdensome – the fair market would have made the price for mining rights much higher. By buying a devalued mining rights, then working to lower the regulations for themselves, Gogebic is leveraging against the balance of the fair market… in effect cheating the process.With that brief history you really this Gogebic is going to pay a fair wage? They can’t even fairly follow an approval process. They will whine, pay a few more politicians, hire another PR firm to sell to the gullible that the workers wages to too high for them to compete. Leveraging another price point against the once fair market for labor, just like they attempted with regulations. Big problem was that Walker was such a high profile confrontational temporary governor more and more people like me are paying attention to all the ramifications of this regime.