Mining 2: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Feb 14, 2012

A state lawmaker revealed a much-anticipated iron mining bill Monday. It’s still in draft form.
Senator Neal Kedzie of Elkhorn wants the Select Committee on Mining Jobs, which he heads - along with the public - to comment on both the preliminary document as well as a mining bill the Assembly passed last month.

In part two of her series, WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence talks with residents in the region where the job-creating iron mine is being proposed.

This report begins a mile from the spot miners would break ground.

It’s easy to spot Terry Peters’ office on Main Street in Mellen..

After all, it’s a small town; several storefronts stand empty and then there’s the giant log tipped on its side outside his front door.

Peters thinks of Mellen as the wood capitol of Wisconsin.

“There’s the saw mill, next door is the dry kills and then the veneer mill has been here since before World War II, that’s usually two to 300 people and there’s always been a pallet mill in Mellen,” Peters says.

Peters perspective is admittedly skewed.

By the time he was born in 1952, his father had given up on milking cows as a viable way to feed his kid, turning instead to logging

In 1973 Peters started his own business and gradually created a niche logging hardwood stands the way his grandpa did on the family farm.

“You’re only taking about 15 percent of the trees, maybe 20 percent; you leave enough to come back versus some operations cut everything down to zero,” Peters says.

Three of Peters’ five sons work with him and he employs 15 additional people.

“A lot of people have been with me over twenty years, we just stuck together,” Peters says.

The businessman happily espouses the pluses of living and working in Mellen, but shuts down when I ask his view on the proposed mine that could emerge a mile from his office door.

“No thank you,” Peters says.

I ask if he stays out of the issue.

“Pretty much; it’s such a huge issue,” Peters says.

Unlike Peters, Mellen’s mayor Joe Barabe likes nothing more than to talk about the mine.

“Everybody is waiting for this mine,” Barabe says.

Barabe calls Terry Peters one of the lucky few; the mayor’s kids – and many others - have abandoned the area in search of work.

“We lost 14 percent of our population in the last 10 years, we can’t keep going down. Mellen has to grow, it’s our time in the sun,” Barabe says.

Barabe’s enthusiasm for mining does not translate to enchantment with the bill the Assembly passed.

He wants certainty that Mellen will receive as much revenue from the mine as possible.

Barabe says that’s not greed talking.

The town’s roads and sewer system will require attention; he’s looking at boosting his police force and hiring more teachers, when families start flooding Mellen.

The mayor also wants to be assured that when the mining company starts drilling and IF his constituents’ wells go dry, they’ll be protected.

“Everyone is 100 percent for this mine, it’s just the bill. If we had a perfect bill, we’d be doing cartwheels right now,” Barabe says.

Barabe is putting his trust in the state lawmakers who represent his region to get the bill right.

Pete Russo has served on both Mellen’s city council and the Ashland County Board for years.

Russo believes it’s his job to remain unbiased, but says public discussion around mining has turned into a landmine

“The majority of concerns are in Ashland County; believe me, I know what I’m saying. I hear from people they have farms, they want to know about their water supply, what about the dust control; blasting, what’s that going to do; I mean you hear about all this,” Russlo says.

Leaving Mellen and moving east into Iron County I meet Rick Lipske in a cross in the road called Upson.

Lipske says he fields lots of questions about the proposed mine.

“I wish I knew more answers, but I don’t know any,” Lipske says.

Lipske’s bar, by the same name, is - from what I can see - the only business in town.

“I’m not for anything or against anything it’s just we need something in the state of Wisconsin. We need work,” Lipske says.

Continuing northeast the larger town of Montreal holds the remnants of a booming iron mine.

Brian Binz lives what seems like high above town, next to the imposing remnants of tailing piles left behind when iron extraction ended here in 1962.

The 42 year old is single-handedly building a house his dad started constructing here years ago.

Binz says he would work at the proposed iron mine outside of Mellen in a flash.

“Tomorrow, oh yeah, for those kinds of benefits and that kind of money and for the length of time it’s going to run. Oh yeah,” Binz says.

Binz is holding his 27-month-old son in his arms.

Perhaps that moves him to add an environmental footnote.

“There’s going to be people watching. They’re not going to get away with anything. You’ve got the EPA and the DNR; that’s enough right there to make sure things are on the up and up,” Binz says.

Binz says he can’t complain, he’s able to provide for his family; but calls his a poverty-stricken region, hungry for decent jobs.