Gogebic Mine Dies Without a Whimper
After all the controversy, it’s been killed, with barely a word from partisans on either side. Why?
That tree in the forest that fell, and didn’t make a sound?
A similar thing just happened in Wisconsin: A controversial plan for a 1,000-foot-deep, 4-mile-long open pit iron mine died, and Capitol politicians paused, said little or nothing and returned to their partisan sniping on other issues.
Let’s make one thing clear: This is not – not! – an argument for developing the huge Gogebic Taconite mine in Iron and Ashland counties. Instead, it’s a political autopsy for a controversy that once rivaled the 2011 fight over Act 10, yet now has disappeared with barely a word spoken about it.
In a Friday, Feb. 27, late-afternoon statement, Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams said the company was dropping the mine proposal. “Our extensive environmental investigation and analysis of the site has revealed wetland issues that make major continued investment unfeasible at this time,” said Williams, who did not respond to a request for an interview last week.
Gogebic’s shelving of the mine means hundreds of jobs won’t be created in northwest Wisconsin, which desperately needs them. It also means no Gogebic mine sales by Milwaukee-area manufacturers of that equipment.
Dozens of special-interest groups, and federal, state and local agencies and governments, had a stake in the Gogebic mine. The legal fights over it would have lasted for years.
Regulators, for example, included the state Department of Natural Resources, which allowed test borings last year and would have had to issue a formal mine permit; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would have conducted its own review, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The neighboring Bad River Tribe said the mine threatened the headwaters of its water and air quality.County and local government leaders also extensively debated the mine, and whether and how to regulate it. A few months ago, Gogebic deemed Ashland County governments unfriendly and dropped plans to mine there. Candidates for the Iron County Board of Supervisors ran on pro- or anti-mine platforms.
“We’re very, very happy the battle is over,” said Joe Barabe, Mayor Mellen, who said last week he could see the equipment used to dig the test borings from the vantage point of Mellen City Hall. Barabe expected the mine to did: “I think it was dead a year ago.”
In the Capitol, the fight over a mining deregulation bill — that Gogebic said was needed in order for the company to develop a mine — lasted for years.
One vote – cast by ex-Republican Sen. Dale Schultz – first killed the bill. But it became Senate Bill 1 in the 2013-14 session after Republican Sen. Rick Gudex had ousted a Democrat. Gudex cast the vote that passed it.
When it passed the Legislature, Republican Gov. Scott Walker issued this statement: “On behalf of the unemployed skilled workers in our state who will benefit from the thousands of mining-related jobs over the next few years, I say thank you for passing a way to streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining in Wisconsin.”
Last year, legal documents disclosed that Gogebic Taconite donated $700,000 in 2012 to help Walker and a few Senate Republicans survive recall elections. Mine opponents called the donation, and Walker’s push for the deregulation bill months later, a classic “pay to play” deal.
When asked about Gogebic killing the mine, the two Democratic legislators who represent the site – Sen. Janet Bewley and Rep. Beth Meyers – said the same thing: Let’s move on and find ways to create family-supporting jobs. Iron County’s unemployment rate exceeds 10 percent.
And on March 2, when DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp appeared before the Legislature’s budget committee, she was not asked one question about the Gogebic mine.
In an interview with WisconsinEye last Friday, former DNR Secretary Scott Hassett said he wasn’t surprised that Gogebic shelved the mine project. Hassett, an attorney, said he thought that the Bad River Tribe would have had a strong legal case against the mine, arguing that it threatened reservation water supplies and air quality.
Maybe one veteran lobbyist, who did not work on the mine bill but whose cottage is a few miles from the site, summarized the controversy best: “It never was real.”