Magnetite outcropping

In this file photo, Gogebic Taconite president Bill Williams touches an outcropping of what he said was magnetite near a proposed mine site. The company has since pulled out but Iron County officials say owners may find another operator.

Iron County Board members say owners of a controversial proposed mine site met with them last week to ask if they would be open to a new developer coming in to try to extract iron from the Penokee Hills.

County economic development officials arranged the meeting between three County Board members and representatives of La Pointe Iron Co., which owns much of the land that Gogebic Taconite tried to develop before pulling out in February.

A La Pointe representative declined to comment Friday, but two of the County Board members who attended the meeting Wednesday at the Iron Skillet restaurant in Hurley said they were told that other potential developers — with better qualifications than Gogebic Taconite — have expressed interest.

“They said they hadn’t heard anything definite yet,” said Opal Roberts, who has served on the board nearly eight years. “They played everything pretty close to the chest.”

Roberts and another board member, Vic Ouimette, said that if a proposal comes forward, county residents will likely remain divided because of concern about environmental damage a mine might cause to the forested Penokee Hills and its streams and wetlands.

But if state and federal regulators are able to ensure the environment is protected, a mine could be worth pursuing, because the area desperately needs jobs, they said.

Iron County’s unemployment rate is over 9 percent, the second highest in the state and nearly double the statewide rate.

Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans who control the Legislature said jobs were the goal in 2012 when Gogebic Taconite helped them rewrite state laws to relax regulations for iron mining. Two years earlier, a similar proposal narrowly failed.

Company officials faced a number of public setbacks. Permit applications they submitted to state regulators were repeatedly sent back for more information. After a protest led to an arrest, the company hired a heavily-armed, masked security detail from Arizona, but then withdrew them when it became known they weren’t licensed to operate in Wisconsin. There were public battles over closing off land to recreational use and the discovery of suspected asbestiform material on the site.

Ouimette said Gogebic Taconite’s performance could make it more difficult for another developer to gain the trust of county residents. Part of the “bad taste” the company left came in revelations that surfaced last year about the company’s $700,000 donation to an outside political group, Wisconsin Club For Growth, in 2012 while the group was supporting Walker’s campaign to defeat a recall attempt, Ouimette said.

The company removed test borings and other rock samples for testing, but seemed to make little progress, and then expressed surprise at the large number of protected wetlands on the site before trying to blame a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decision in Alaska when the site was abandoned, Ouimette said.

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Roberts said the La Pointe representatives said the EPA might have been a small part of the reason Gogebic Taconite pulled out, but the main reasons were that the company had no experience in iron mining and didn’t see a way to make a profit.

The Cline Group, which formed Gogebic Taconite to develop the Penokee Hills iron deposit, operates coal mines.

George Meyer, director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the organization believes protections for wetlands and streams should be restored to the mining law, but it doesn’t have a problem with portions of the new law that set tighter time limits for the state Department of Natural Resources to review mining permit applications.

DNR mining programs director Ann Coakley said that her office hasn’t been contacted about the possibility of a new mine developer.

News of the meeting first surfaced last week on the Woods Person blog, written by Iron County resident Dick Thiede, a retired machine designer who has followed the mine project closely.

Ouimette and Roberts said the landowners representatives were David Meinecke and David Adams, who said they were from La Pointe, and Paul Eger, who said he was from Global Minerals Engineering. La Pointe Iron Co. and Global Minerals Engineering share an address in Hibbing, Minnesota.

Roberts said she told them that it will be important to see local residents receive training that would make them qualified for skilled mining jobs so that all the higher-paid positions don’t go to people from outside the area.

“The Iron County Board has always stated that they want a mine if it can be operated with environmental protections,” Roberts said.

The 2014 County Board election drew an unusual number of challengers. Wisconsin conservative group Americans For Prosperity distributed campaign materials blasting seven candidates as “radical anti-mining” environmentalists.

Ouimette won despite being one of those targeted by the group, which was founded by billionaire conservative businessmen Charles and David Koch. Ouimette campaigned as a proponent of responsible mining.

On Sunday, he said it wasn’t clear how a new developer would find a way to build a mine without harming the environment, but he was pleased La Pointe had reached out to elected officials early. He said the landowner’s representatives said it was possible that a new developer would propose a technique that would be more successful than the one pursued by Gogebic Taconite.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.