Scientists comb proposed WI mine site for environmental data

Part of the land in Iron and Ashland Counties where Gogebic Taconite wants to build an iron mine. (WLUK/Andrew LaCombe)

ANDERSON - Scientists are working to determine how an iron mine in Northwest Wisconsin could impact the environment. Experts are carefully combing the forests of the Penokee Hills this spring and summer.

A Florida-based company, Gogebic Taconite, wants to build an open pit mine in Iron and Ashland Counties. Discussions about the mine have been ongoing since November 2010.

FOX 11 is taking an in-depth look into what's happening at the site right now, and plans for the future.

Neil Molstad is mapping out wetlands for Gogebic.

"I'm making a quick list of what we have right here in this area as far as what the plants are," said Molstad. "I'm looking at the presence of water or features."

Molstad works for Stantec, a consulting company near Madison.

"So even though it's very, very small, we still have to make sure that things like this are documented," he said. "The state requires it. The federal government requires it."

About 20 scientists work at the site on an average day. The data they collect is critical to Gogebic's plans for a $1.5 billion mine, said company spokesman Bob Seitz.

"If the science doesn't say that we can do it, then we can't do it," said Seitz.

Seitz says the information will be put into its application for a mining permit. People who oppose the project, like the chairman of the Bad River Indian Tribe, expect the data will support their side.

"What I foresee happening is science holding sway and the mining company being unable to deal with the physical realities of their notions of mining safely and they'll have to put their toys away," said Mike Wiggins Jr.

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.

"When you look at the sensitivities of wild rice, when you look at the sensitivities of different parts of the ecosystems, all of that is at stake for us," said Wiggins.

Gogebic says it will test for anything that could be in its rock.

"Whether or not you find for instance a sulfide mineral doesn't really tell you anything," said Seitz. "It's whether or not the overall ore body is going to produce something that's dangerous to the environment or not. If we had seen something that would make this a showstopper, that we couldn't do this mine safely for the environment, I don't think we'd be spending the money right now."

The Wisconsin DNR says there are reports dating back to the 1800s of sulfides in the area, but the agency says it's "very early in the project" and it hasn't studied any of Gogebic's samples.

Tim Myers, the company's mining engineer, says it will also take a close look.

"We'll be taking samples to determine the acid-based accounting, which will tell us if it's acid producing or not," said Myers. "We'll do another test to determine what kind of metals would leach out of this long term."

The DNR will split Gogebic's samples and independently test them to determine the distribution and concentration of all minerals.

In the past year, Gogebic Taconite has taken 22 samples out of the ore body by drilling into the ground up to 1,400 feet deep.

Other tests are being done on hidden water at the 3,200 acre site.

"We've also drilled hydrological wells so we can model what the groundwater is doing to ensure that we don't have negative impacts on wetlands or streams or lakes," said Seitz.

Not all of the fieldwork can take place during the day. At night, some scientists have been at the site listening for frogs and owls.

Whatever they observe has to be documented and included in Gogebic's application.

Scientists are also paying special attention to protected species. The mine would have to avoid contact with them.

DNR staff is also on site two or three days a week to make sure the project is following state regulations.

"Our role is to make sure that they are doing things in the proper way, and so far so good," said Zoe McManama, a DNR hydrogelogist.

Gogebic Taconite reimburses the DNR for its oversight work. The company says as of June, it's paid the DNR $350,000.

"The DNR's role is here is a neutral role," said McManama. "We're an advisory capacity for the most part."

Just across the road from the proposed mine site is a camp dedicated to Indian culture and mining opposition.

"We just kind of chose to stick around and kind of inform people about what the mine is about," said Larry Ackley. "What they're trying to say is what's good and what's bad, but I don't see any good coming out of the mine."

Larry Ackley and his wife Jennifer say they have been living at the camp since last fall, staying through the winter.

"It was pretty cool, literally," said Larry Ackley.

The Ackleys say they weren't around last summer, when Gogebic Taconite hired guards, some carrying assault rifles, to protect its site.

"Yeah, the mercenaries from Arizona, we were told about them," said Jennifer Ackley.

Gogebic brought in the guards after a protest led to criminal charges against a demonstrator.

FOX 11 didn't notice any guards during a recent visit to the site, but the company wouldn't explain its current setup.

"We try not to talk about what we're doing for security because the protesters don't tell us what they're doing," said Seitz. "We are concerned with security with everything we do."

The site has been targeted by vandalism. The company says people have put glue in locks and damaged a bridge. That had to be repaired.

For people working on research at the site, it's tough to predict when their work will be complete.

"Initially it goes pretty slow," said Molstad.

Gogebic expects the data collection will continue through most of this year.