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Leaked DNR report says mine poses threats to human health, water

Leaked DNR report says mine poses threats to human health, water

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Iron mining in northern Wisconsin poses a variety of potential threats to human health and to the water supply that connects a complex ecosystem ranging from upland forest to wetland bogs to Lake Superior, state scientists say in an internal report that came to light Thursday.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ research bureau produced the report to brief agency regulators on what scientific literature says about extensive testing and environmental monitoring that are typically needed to prevent serious damage from acid runoff into streams and mercury emissions into the air, agency officials said.

But the company that wants to dig a sprawling mine in the Penokee Hills in Iron and Ashland counties complained about the 103-page document being created before testing of core samples from the site was completed.

“It just gives a laundry list of the kind of stuff you hear from protesters,” Gogebic Taconite spokesman Bob Seitz said. “There are some good people over there (at the DNR), but this demonstrates that there are some people who also have a bias against mining.”

Seitz said the DNR sent a copy of the report to the company a few days ago. The conservative website Media Trackers obtained a copy, posted it on its website and called the document “fear mongering.”

Larry Lynch, the DNR manager for the mine project, confirmed the document’s authenticity and said it had been distributed throughout the agency for several weeks.

Media Trackers didn’t disclose on its website how it obtained a copy.

DNR officials said Seitz was wrong to suggest that this report was meant in any way to replace or pre-empt the environmental impact study that is to be completed when the company applies for a mining permit.

“The report is only a tool to identify issues that the department may need to review,” said DNR spokesman Bill Cosh.

“The real work of the department is reviewing a thorough and detailed mining application,” Cosh said. “We have every confidence that our permitting staff will review the application within the confines of the law while utilizing sound science and common sense.”

One-year study

Experts in the DNR science services bureau began a year ago reviewing an array of research about the type of mine being proposed, said bureau chief Jack Sullivan.

“Our job is to not take sides on anything,” Sullivan said. “That report is very objective and not trying to persuade a reader one way or another. For anyone interested in becoming part of the conversation, this is something you should read, because it will make you more informed about mining.”

Seitz said he hadn’t read the entire report, but he criticized it for referring to research done by a geologist who had presented information to the Legislature that the company contradicted during hearings that led up to enactment last year of a new mining law that sets limits on how long the DNR can review the company’s proposal.

Sullivan said his staff drew information from dozens of scientists while relying on research that had withstood stringent peer reviews.

Gogebic Taconite has drilled eight core samples at the mine site and it is seeking DNR permission for 15 more.

It also has applied for a permit to remove 4,000 tons of rock to help it determine the machinery needed to extract iron from waste rock.

The DNR review of research wasn’t designed as a review of the mining plans that Gogebic Taconite has sketched out in its preliminary permit requests, officials said.

But in at least one passage, the report highlights two studies that addressed the “dry stacking” method for storing potentially hazardous waste rock that the company plans to use, saying it was more expensive than other methods, but it had advantages of taking up less space and reducing risk of water contamination.

The report also discusses the myriad lakes and streams in the forests around the mine site, and the danger of acid runoff from waste rock, which can require decades of monitoring. Mine waste has been observed to leach neutral drainage for 14 years before beginning to leach highly destructive acid runoff, the report said.


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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.

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