Environmentalists seek permanent protection of Penokee

UPDATED: The company that sought to open a massive iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin is instead packing up its office. The Gogebic Taconite mining company announced the closure of its office in Hurley and said further investment in the venture is unfeasible.

The decision, announced in a press statement by Gogebic president Bill Williams, brings to a halt the effort to transform land in the Penokee Hills in the Iron/Ashland county border into an iron mine. The proposal, brought forward in 2011 and advanced by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators, drew strong opposition from environmentalists and Native American tribal members in the region. The development was planned for the Bad River Watershed, where many streams flow to Lake Superior and through the wild rice beds of the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation.

Williams, in the press statement, said Florida-based Gogebic would continue to investigate the possibility of pursuing the mine but it couldn’t justify the office expense: “Our extensive environmental investigation and analysis of the site has revealed wetland issues that make major continued investment unfeasible at this time.”

“It took Gogebic Taconite roughly four years to determine what has been obvious to local Wisconsin citizens and the Bad River Tribe from day one, when a giant open pit iron mine was proposed for the pristine Bad River Watershed: mining in this area is not feasible,” said Shahla Werner, director of the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter in Wisconsin. 

In 2013, with Walker backing the project, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a bill easing environmental regulations to clear the way for the mine. The votes followed Gogebic’s $700,000 investment in the Republican Party of Wisconsin during the recall elections.

But Gogebic still faced obstacles, with regulatory reviews, tribal resistance, environmental opposition and local government concerns.

At one point, Gogebic hired an armed paramilitary force to guard the proposed mining area after Native American tribal leaders established an “education center” nearby.

But the strong opposition continued.

Last summer, the Wisconsin Federation of Tribes asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop the mine under the Clean Water Act. The same approach effectively halted the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.

Environmental advocates refrained from declaring victory, but they cheered the latest development.

“From the first rumor of this mining company coming into Wisconsin’s Northwoods five years ago, there was no debating the significant risk to natural resources the mine posed,” stated the Clean Wisconsin advocacy group. “The value of the Northwood’s wetlands, trout streams, lakes, wild rice beds, majestic forests, clean drinking water and the beauty of Lake Superior is immeasurable, and it would have been jeopardized by Gogebic Taconite’s plans for an open-pit iron mine. We hope lessons will be learned from this experience, and that Wisconsin won’t soon go down the path again of weakening environmental laws for the risky and shortsighted plans of a single company.”

In a statement released after Williams announced the office’s closure, Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick called the development unfortunate. “We remain committed to working with companies interested in creating quality, family-supporting jobs in Wisconsin,” the statement read.

Werner said Gogebic and the state GOP used the mining proposal for “Walker’s personal political gain to give false promises of jobs they had no intentions of delivering to people in northern Wisconsin.”

And now, Werner continued, “We have the responsibility to work together to develop real, sustainable jobs in tourism, clean energy, forestry, family farming, health care, education and more that won’t sacrifice our land, water and wildlife for future generations.”

Environmentalists also are working for permanent protections in the area and to change the measures adopted to favor the Gogebic project.

“We will work to repeal the laws written by Gogebic Taconite based on false science and equally false promises that gutted environmental protections for this single proposal,” said Dave Blouin, mining committee chair with the Sierra Club -John Muir Chapter. “Gov. Walker and the Republican Legislature…are willing to sacrifice northern Wisconsin in exchange for campaign donations to further their political ambitions. The governor and the GOP-led Legislature gave Gogebic Taconite everything it wanted and gave state residents nothing in return.”

The Sierra campaign will focus on repealing Act 1 and Act 81, enacted in 2013.

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