Ever since Gogebic Taconite announced its interest in digging a miles-long open-pit iron mine in Ashland and Iron counties, the two sides have been bracing for verbal and legal combat.
So when the state Assembly approved a mining bill recently that gives the green light for test drilling and state and federal studies to see if the project should become reality, the rhetoric from both camps was predictable and hardly new.
On one side are Republicans who hold majorities in both houses of the Legislature and who voted almost unanimously in favor of the bill, claiming it sufficiently safeguards the environment. Gov. Scott Walker, also a Republican, hailed the vote and said it will help many unemployed skilled workers in Northern Wisconsin. The state’s business community also hailed the vote for its job-creating potential.
On the other side are minority Democrats in the Legislature who voted unanimously against the bill, claiming a mine would be an environmental disaster, destroying forests and streams, and even threaten Lake Superior. They are joined in their opposition by various environmental groups and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the latter of which may be able to squelch the project depending how the courts rule on treaty language.
In the middle remain the majority of independent voters and thinkers who would love to see an infusion of jobs into that part of the state. But that same majority also wouldn’t support a mine project that has a strong potential to severely harm the quality of the air, water and forests of that pristine part of our state.
What would be welcome is a truly objective analysis of the project by engineers and other experts in their fields from the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After that process, we could listen to their findings and decide if the benefits are worth the real and potential risks.
That’s a tough call for two reasons. On one extreme are those who say any mine should cause no adverse environmental impacts. The problem with that threshold is that every time we start a car or motorboat we cause adverse environmental impacts. So it comes down to arguing about degree, and that’s not something most people can decide without expert input.
The second problem with mines is that history tells us that pollution can surface decades after the ore is removed and the company and those who benefited from the project have long since died or moved on. Simply, it’s not a decision we can afford to get wrong.
Mine proponents argue that the old mining law made it virtually impossible for that industry to operate in Wisconsin. Opponents say the new bill not only puts the proposed site at risk, but that the standards are now so loose that mining companies will flock here to poke holes in our hills and forests, make a ton of money and leave our land defaced and our heritage of environmental stewardship in shambles.
We should let the experts do their work. In the meantime, mine backers shouldn’t start counting the jobs, and opponents should scale back their doomsday scenarios.
— Eau Claire Leader-Telegram