In a dramatic, late-night hearing on Tuesday, four outraged Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee confronted...
The company for which Wisconsin's mining laws were changed earlier this year is having difficulty meeting even those relaxed requirements.
On June 17, right around the time they illegally hired machine gun-toting mercenaries to prowl the Penokee Hills, Gogebic Taconite (GTac) submitted a bulk sampling plan and a pre-application notice (PDF) to the state's Department of Natural Resources. This also coincided with the time that residents of the area where the mine would be located, Iron and Ashland Counties, began discussing mining-related zoning ordinances.
But in their race to beat local regulations, GTac failed to provide adequate information to the DNR, who responded with a three page, ten-point letter (PDF) asking for more information. GTac replied to the request at the end of July, but their answers still weren't good enough. On August 13 the DNR sent GTac another nine-point letter (PDF) asking for more information.
Over three months later, GTac has finally responded with a plan (PDF) that still doesn't address the DNR's concerns about how they will manage airborne asbestiform minerals or the potential presence of sulfuric acid-producing rocks. GTac answered the questions by asserting that asbestiform and sulfide minerals don't exist in the area they plan to excavate, despite the documented presence of both grunerite, a mineral containing long asbestos fibers, and sulfide-rich pyrite, a mineral that when crushed and mixed with water produces sulfuric acid.
Apparently a company bold enough to purchase laws for itself -- it bought a new one in September that closes off public access land around their bulk sampling sites -- is also bold enough to assert the non-existence of toxic materials in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary.
The spin from GTac officials is spectacular.
At a recent series of "one-one-one" meetings with members of the public and the press, lobbyist Bob Seitz told Anastasia Walhovd, "The assumption would be, without knowing the facts yet, there's probably not a sulfide issue here." Mining engineer Tim Myers added that asbestos and acid mine drainage are merely "issues in the media," and not elsewhere. When Walhovd pressed the point about the existence of these minerals, GTac CEO Bill Williams said: "I don't think they've been confirmed though. There's no scientific studies."
GTac engineer Tim Myers, lobbyist Bob Seitz and CEO Bill Williams at an Iron County Board meeting.
Williams has recently come under scrutiny for his actions while working as a manager at a copper mine in Spain, just before taking the job with GTac in 2011. Last week Williams and two other former executives of Cobre Las Cruces lost their third and final appeal in a Spanish court to avoid facing charges of environmental damages that include arsenic poisoning of an aquifer and the collapse of the mine's walls. The plaintiffs in the case are now seeking his return to Spain to face the charges.
As GTac was taking its time answering the DNRs last letter, Ashland County was preparing and passing a bulk sampling ordinance that involves a $10,000 filing fee and requires mining companies to negotiate with the county zoning committee for a conditional use permit.
"It's a good thing because it protects the county; it means the company has to come to the table with us now over this bulk sampling," Ashland County Chairman Pete Russo said. "If we hadn't of passed it, they could have bulk sampled all they wanted and never have said a word to us or anything."
But it seems as though GTac is not interested in coming to the Ashland County table. In the latest version of the bulk sampling plan the two sample sites located in Ashland County have been nixed. These were the sites where asbestos-laden grunerite outcroppings were found.
While maintaining his denial that asbestiform minerals even exist, Tim Myers couches the removal of the Ashland County sites in terms related to that very same mineral: "Bulk Sample Site 3A and Bulk Sample Site 4 have been removed from the Bulk Sample Plan. The grunerite issue has been the subject of a media debate and the removal of these areas leaves the debate to be resolved by the systematic and scientific study of the issue that will be required within the permit application. Our position remains that asbestiform material is unlikely to be present in the reserve..."
Similarly, the new plan will not include blasting, except where it does. The cover letter states: "Blasting is not included in the primary method for collecting a bulk sample. If a sufficient rock sample is not available, an alternative plan has been included to address the issues of blasting." And what is the alternative plan? Blasting, of course.
At a meeting of the Iron County Board last spring, GTac's CEO uttered a startlingly honest sentence amid his attempt to address the concerns of board members. They didn't get many answers, but Williams did offer this gem: "What I tell you today may change tomorrow, or it may not."
The DNR now must decide, for the third time, whether or not the plan gives them enough information to determine what kind of permits GTac will need before embarking on the bulk sampling activities that involve the removal of 2,400 tons of rock. They have already told GTac they will need a stormwater discharge permit, but it is still not clear whether or not they will need other permits related to air quality or wetland disturbance.
Once the various permit applications have been submitted and deemed complete, the DNR has 60 days to decide on approval. Given their track record on completing the information required for the bulk sampling plan, it is not likely that GTac would be able to begin bulk sampling in the Penokee Hills until springtime.
Featured photo: Cline Group owner Chris Cline, via Wikimedia commons.