The hidden danger in the Mining Bill version 2013

Tomorrow, Wednesday January 23 at 9:00 AM, Room 411 South at the Wisconsin State Capitol will be the only scheduled hearing  (for now) on the new Mining Bill.  The hearing takes place before a joint committee, and will undoubtedly be contentious. One of the greatest miscarriages of justice in this process has been the omission of participation, and lack of  recognition of the Bad River Nation and the impact on this legally sovereign entity.

This is intentional, as there is a hidden danger in the new Mining Bill which has received little attention in the press. The result, if this bill is passed, will be a bad law – which is what happens when corporate influence holds outsized sway over a legislative body. The only jobs that will be created if this bill passes will be for attorneys, and rightly so. The current bill has language that will virtually deregulate one of the greatest hazards to freshwater and the Great Lakes – sulfide ore. The passage of this bill could lead to mining activity that would turn surface water into acidic runoff, ruining the environment in one of the greatest freshwater basins on earth.

Senate/Assembly Bill 1, page 3 contains the Legislative Reference Bureau’s analysis of the change in “sulfide ore” regulation:

Current law prohibits DNR from issuing a permit for metallic mining in a sulfide ore body (a mineral deposit in which metals are mixed with sulfide minerals) unless it finds, based on information provided by the applicant, that two conditions are satisfiedUnder the bill, these conditions on issuing a permit for metallic mining in a sulfide ore body do not apply to issuing a permit for iron mining.

The expedited release of sulfide ore deposits into surface water, and the damage it causes has been well documented over several decades:

The acidic discharge and metal-laden leachate from mining activities is known as acid mine drainage (“AMD”)…AMD is one of the most damaging and widespread pollutants associated with the mining industry throughout the world.  As of 1997, over 60 mines or mineral processing plants were on CERCLA’s National Priorities List, indicating contamination so severe that it requires federally-funded cleanup. (S.R. Jennings, D.R. Neuman, and P.S. Blicker (2008). “Acid Mine Drainage and Effects on Fish Health and Ecology: A Review”. Reclamation Research Group Publication, Bozeman, MT for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anhorage Field Office. Available online at http://www.pebblescience.org/pdfs/Final_Lit_Review_AMD.pdf)

Among some legislators associated with this bill, there is confusion regarding iron ore mining and sulfides. This confusion has been propagated by GTAC, in the hopes of keeping the facts (and legislators) in the dark. Part of the confusion is based on facts regarding iron ore mining:

It is important at the outset to clarify some common confusion surrounding sulfide mining and to distinguish it from other traditional forms of mining in the region. While iron mining has a long history and still continues in the upper Midwest, it does not involve the mining
or disturbance of sulfide ores. Iron is generally mined out of an iron oxide ore, not an iron sulfide ore, and iron oxide ores do not degrade and toxify the same way that sulfide ores do. (Environmental Protection Agency, Region 5, “Great Lakes: Basic Information.” http://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/basicinfo.html)

The Penokee Range Taconite is unique, however. A report issued by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and scientists at Michigan Tech in March, 2012 draws the distinction:

This issue can be confusing because iron sulfides (e.g., pyrite, iron disulfide) are among the most prevalent of sulfide ores, so they are often the leading causes of acid mine drainage (“AMD”) in a sulfide mining operation. This does not, however, mean that iron mines are always associated with sulfurous AMD. In fact, the presence of sulfur in an iron ore is considered a weakening factor, rendering the ore undesirable for iron extraction. Iron sulfides are simply a common byproduct of the extraction of other metals from sulfide ore bodies. 

A taconite mine that disturbs sulfide ore bodies, on the other hand, would present the same hazards as non-ferrous metallic mines. The Gogebic Taconite mine under development in northern Wisconsin is an example of a taconite mine that may disturb sulfide minerals.

A recent article published by The Wisconsin Academy titled “Ironwood: The Rocks of the Penokee Range” confirms and details the unique geological features of the formation:

Figure 2. Block diagram showing the Ironwood Formation and adjacent bedrock layers. The view is looking toward the west (from U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1730)

Geologist Tom Fitz details the composition of the “Tyler Formation;” the large, wedge-shaped layer above the “Iron-Formation” layer (see figure, above).

There is also pyrite present in the Tyler Formation, some of which would end up in the tailings as well. When pulverized and put in contact with oxygen and water at the Earth’s surface, pyrite and other sulfide minerals can undergo chemical reactions that create sulfuric acid. This acid can leach harmful metals and compounds that end up in groundwater and surface water.

It is also possible that sulfate ions released during the weathering of pyrite would affect the growth of wild rice and other elements of the sensitive ecosystem found downstream from the mine. 

 The legislation passed in January 2012 by the Wisconsin State Assembly would have decreased the rigor required in scientific studies regarding potential impacts, making assessment of potential damages difficult. At the same time it would weaken many environmental regulations that protect the Bad River and its tributaries from significant water quality changes.

THAT is the hidden danger in the current Mining Bill. The authors have created a special exception for Iron Mining, taking away the regulations and processes that will protect the surface water and Lake Superior watershed from the harmful sulfides created from extracting iron ore through a heavily pyrite layer. The waste runoff created from destruction and disposal of the sulfide ore will have a longterm impact on regional water quality:

Figure 4. Map of the Bad River Watershed showing the location of the iron ore and the Bad River Reservation

The major corporate entities poised to benefit from the bill have intentionally perpetrated a fraud in this bill, and it endangers the very lifeblood of North Central Wisconsin – the water. The reason? They cannot mine the ore because of the low price of iron, and make millions of dollars in profit unless they are able to pollute the water – and they know it. THAT is why they created this provision in the bill. From the NWF Mining Study cited above:

Wisconsin’s sulfide mining law has perhaps the greatest regulatory scope of any of the
U.S. jurisdictions surveyed…Notably, state agencies are charged with the essential task of completing the environmental review for the project in the application phase, rather than the permittee. Special attention is paid to siting criteria and water quality, and the financial assurance mechanisms are written to ensure that any necessary cleanup will be fully funded by the permittee.

If you wanted to make a quick, multi-million dollar deal on a mine, this is how you would do it.

For the record, this has NOTHING to do with creating jobs. It’s about creating a “boom” economy in North Central Wisconsin, so a few people can make a quick buck.

Who cleans up when the bubble bursts, as it always does?

Mining Bill Hearing in Committee today – amendments offered add insult to injury for local citizens, Bad River Nation

The Mining Bill (AB426) is scheduled to be debated in Rep. Mary Williams’ (R-Medford) Committee on Jobs at 10:00am today. On Friday, Williams offered 8 amendments to the bill in an attempt to put a band-aid on a cut that requires a tourniquet. Unfortunately, the Williams amendments merely skirted the issues publicly addressed in two hearings, leaving the Corporate giveaway in the bill intact. The Fiscal Estimate prepared by the DNR for the Department of Budget shows the negative revenue impact of the bill – increasing costs to the state, taxpayers, and municipalities. This Mining Bill will cost the state millions of dollars in lost fees, revenue, and recovery costs. While Williams did not consult with any Democratic members of the Committee in drafting her amendments, it is obvious the Gogebic Taconite Mining Company was heard loud and clear, in spite of the citizen outcry during two public hearings.

In an article published in today’s Indian Country Today Media Network, the 10 guidelines presented to the Walker Administration in September by the Bad River Nation are reviewed: 

1. The definition of iron mining should be clearly set forth to exclude any project proposal that has the potential to cause acid mine drainage.

2. The completeness of iron mining–permit applications should be clearly defined and the burden of preparing and submitting a complete application should be entirely on the permit applicant.

3. The permitting time frame should be reasonable, flexible and consistent with federal agency time frames. It should also provide sufficient time for the DNR, the public, federal agencies, and affected Indian tribes, to fully review and participate in the permitting process.

4. Wetland protection standards should be maintained and the federal/state partnership in the environmental review process under state and federal law should not be jeopardized.

5. Federal clean water act implementation by DNR should be corrected and not weakened.

6. There should be contested case hearings to allow full participation by interested parties, including Indian tribes.

7. There should be no preemption of local control.

8. Citizen suits should be maintained to make sure permit provisions and legal restrictions on new mines will be enforced.

9. Consultation with Indian tribes by the DNR should be required as part of the permitting process.

10. Interested party financing should be provided for the contested case hearing process.

In addition to these critical points addressed by the Nation, there are points critical to the counties and Municipalities affected by the mine:

1. There is no funding of infrastructure required before a mine becomes operational – roads, sewer upgrades, etc. This cost falls directly on municipalities, with no funding until after the mine is operational and generating revenue.

2. The revenue to local communities is reduced under this bill – even the amendment offered only increases local revenue from 50% to 60%. In previous mining legislation, there is a dedicated local fund that receives 100% of state revenue for local support of infrastructure and impact.

3. The permitting fee was $1 million, raised to only $2.2 million under the amendment – still only a fraction of the actual cost to fund a study by the DNR/US Army Corps of Engineers. The state would have to make up the remaining cost, and thus the taxpayers.

None of the amendments offered by Williams fully address ANY of the above concerns, which range from environmental to fiscal. The long-term impact of this bill is being ignored by Williams and the GOP who are more interested in a gift to Gogebic Taconite. Expect the bill to pass out of committee on partisan vote today – with concerns raised by Democratic members brushed aside by Williams and the GOP members. It is likely the bill will pass in Assembly on Thursday, with it advancing to the Senate for approval. The pressure must be kept up on this bill, with the Senate politic in flux due to recall influence, and Dale Schultz acting as a wildcard.

This is a bad bill. Period. Not even partially responsible government, it is a blatant giveaway to a GOP friendly corporation that will be one more of many to reap enormous profit at the expense of the current and future generations of Wisconsinites.