ANDERSON - A proposed mine in Northwest Wisconsin continues to spark debate concerning the area's economy and the environment.
Gogebic Taconite, a company based in Florida, wants to build a $1.5 billion iron mine in the Penokee Hills of southern Iron and Ashland Counties.
Scientists are conducing fieldwork at the site throughout the year. Gogebic needs to collect data that will be used when it applies for permits.
"The testing is critical," said Gogebic spokesperson Bob Seitz. "Everything we do is driven by the science. We can't do anything that's not driven by the science."
Iron County leaders also want to know if the project is possible.
"When this opportunity came along to reintroduce mining to the region, I thought that it would be in the best interest of everyone in the area to try to vet this opportunity to find out if it's viable or not," said Bob Walesewicz.
Walesewicz is part of the county's Mining Impact Committee.
"What we're doing while we're waiting is to try to become better students of the industry," he said.
The committee, and most people in Northwest Wisconsin, are waiting on research. Scientists are studying all aspects of the area, including plants, animals, wetlands and groundwater. The data collected will ultimately determine if the project is possible.
"If the science doesn't say that we can do it, then we can't do it," said Seitz.
Gogebic Taconite's mine would include two open pits. Combined they would be four miles long, up to a half mile wide, and up to 1,000 feet deep.
The company says it would produce seven to eight million tons of iron ore each year for 35 years. The proposed site is 3,200 acres in size, with 2,800 acres in Iron County and 400 acres in Ashland County.
Some fear the mine could harm the surrounding environment, including the Bad River Indian Tribe.
The mine would be built about five miles from a tribal boundary. The Bad River Tribe fears that sulfides from the mine's waste rock would mix with water and air to form acidic drainage. That would flow north through tribal lands to the shore of Lake Superior.
"From a nation-building perspective, this is an act of war that is being proposed on top of our little nation here," said tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr.
The tribe says it has evidence the pollution would happen.
"Fear for life, for life of the waters, of everything the land offers," said member Jill Hartlev.
"It would be no different than mining right here in these waters in the heart of our reservation because of the physical reality of interconnectedness," added Wiggins.
Gogebic Taconite disagrees.
"I think that we've got a mining project that we can propose from everything we've seen so far, all the science would indicate that this can be a safe project," said Seitz.
Hurley business owner Jack Giovanoni says he supports the mine and protecting the environment.
"As you look here, we're in sporting goods. I make my living on this," said Giovanoni, while standing in his hardware store. "You think we're not environmentalists? You think we don't want to protect our community?"
A decision about the mine won't come quickly, according to a former leader of the Wisconsin DNR.
"It may well be eight years before a permit can be finally granted," said George Meyer. "That might include court time, also."
Meyer now heads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. The organization hasn't taken a position on the mine, but Meyer says Gogebic needs to be more proactive as it lays out its plans.
"The way to get ahead with the situation is to invest a lot of money early and do your studies and then win the people over," he said. "I mean there's great local opposition to this project, especially in Ashland County."
Gogebic will eventually apply for mining permits from county, state and federal governments.
"What we've wanted throughout this process is to get a yes or a no within a defined kind of time frame, and that's what we're hoping for," said Seitz. "If they determine we can't do it then we get a no, the only people who are out money is the company."
Area leaders, like Walesewicz, are waiting.
"We really do need to figure out how to strike a balance to come up with an economically viable industry and also protect the environment at the same time," he said. "It will be up to our regulators to try to figure out whether that's possible."
Opponents are sure it's not possible.
"I'm not against prosperity and moving forward and opportunities," said Hartlev. "This would be too devastating on every level."
Gogebic says the mine would create more than 2,000 construction jobs and 700 full-time jobs during operation.
Tuesday night on FOX 11 News at Five, we'll explain more about the current economy in the area and how a mine could help.