This story appeared first in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.
With metal prices soaring and mining companies feeling more welcome under Gov. Scott Walker's "open for business" philosophy, mineral exploration is going on at a level not seen in nearly 30 years in northern Wisconsin.
At least four major deposits of minerals including gold, silver and zinc are being tested by mining companies that may eventually apply for permits to extract the metals, according to Ann Coakley , director of waste and materials management for the state Department of Natural Resources. Coakley spoke to the state Natural Resources Board at its monthly meeting in Spring Green last week.
Companies considering building those mines are being welcomed by residents in northern counties, said Paul Herdes, a spokesman for Aquila Resources Inc., a mining firm that is doing exploratory work in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Aquila opened a three-person office in Schofield about three months ago, Herdes said. The former teacher signed on as their public relations person. He said the company hosted booths at both the Wisconsin Valley Fair and Farm Tech Days in Marathon County.
"My greatest fear was that I would have to confront lots of anti-mining folks," Herdes said. "But at our booth at the Wisconsin Valley Fair we had 380 people stop by and not a single person was anti-mining."
A more welcoming political atmosphere as well as the faltering economy and the lack of jobs, especially pronounced in depressed northern counties, account at least partly for the resurgent support for mining, he said.
"I'm sure the politics today has something to do with it," Herdes said. "Mining is a tough sell in Wisconsin. For 15 years, mining companies haven't even considered looking in Wisconsin. That's changing with the need for jobs and the need for the resources."
A proposal from Gogebic Taconite to build a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties has received the most attention in recent months. The company says the open-pit mine would operate for about 30 years, create 2,834 jobs and generate a $604 million economic impact over a 12-county region.
But that project has been put on hold. Gogebic officials had hoped the state Legislature would pass a bill to streamline the permitting process for mines that don't produce acidic wastes, also known as non-sulfide mines. But that didn't happen, and although the proposed permitting changes may get taken up yet this legislative session, the company said it is putting the mine proposal on hold and may abandon the project if the law isn't passed.
All of the other ore bodies being explored would require sulfide mines, or mines that produce waste or tailings, which have the potential to create acidic runoff that could pollute nearby lakes, streams and marshes and groundwater. Such mines must pass a tougher permitting process in Wisconsin, including a showing that its other mines have not polluted.
The ore deposits being explored include:
• Reef deposit, Marathon County. Significant amounts of gold east of Wausau. Exploration license issued to Aquila Resources this spring.
• Bend deposit, Taylor County. Copper and gold. Also being considered for exploration this fall or winter by Aquila Resources.
• Lynne deposit, Oneida County. Zinc, lead and silver. Two mining companies, Tamerlane Ventures and Josephine Mining Company, both from the state of Washington, have expressed an interest in the site.
One other deposit, known as the Back 40, is in the Upper Peninsula just east of the Menominee River, which Michigan and Wisconsin share as a border. Aquila Resources is conducting test drilling at this site. The DNR's Coakley said that, although the deposit is not in Wisconsin, its proximity would require the two states to cooperate on regulation of the project because of the threat to the Menominee River.
Tom Evans, with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, said the state's major ore deposits are well known throughout the mining community. He added that part of the appeal here is that much of the exploratory work has already been done on the big deposits. A number of mining companies conducted test drilling in the 1970s and 1980s when metal prices also were high.
Coakley said that even though companies are conducting test drills, it is likely to be years before any of them applies for a mining permit.
"Even when a company comes in and says it intends to mine, they have to spend a couple of years gathering data," Coakley said.
She added that approval of the permits also would take time because several of the deposits are in areas that are ecologically sensitive. The Lynne deposit, for example, is on the banks of the Willow River in the Willow Flowage, an area that has been protected by the DNR. And the Bend deposit is in the Chequamegon National Forest.
Mining proposals in Wisconsin, partly because they are in such sensitive areas, have frequently drawn protest. Coakley said she receives "numerous" calls each week from people who are concerned about the possibility of more mines being built in Wisconsin.
"I think people are pretty divided," Coakley said. "It's definitely mixed."