Mining 3: Dissenting Voices

Feb 15, 2012

Environmental groups are not any happier with a new Senate mining bill, than with legislation the Assembly passed weeks ago.

Advocates of streamlined regulations want to pave the way for an open pit iron mine just south of Lake Superior.

People who live nearby have mixed opinions.

Yesterday we spoke with residents who support mining because of the hundreds of jobs it would create.

Today, WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence steps into the Penokee Range where some people hope to stop or at least slow the process.

The headwaters of the Bad River at Lake Caroline

Bill Heart figures I’m the hundredth person he’s guided into the Penokees over the last year.

The avid fisherman says he’d even reveal his secret trout streams, if it would save the region from mining.

“I’m just concerned about the water, that’s what I’m concerned about. I love trout fishing and I love little brook trout and they’re going to be gone if that mine goes there; absolutely gone,” Heart says.

We leave Ashland heading southeast, first, to meet one of a handful of people working with Heart to thwart the open pit mine.

“This is Highway 13, in about a mile and a half we’ll turn and go down and see Pete,” Heart says.

A few minutes later, we arrive at the home of Pete Rasmussen.

“We built the house and the barn. I love Wisconsin,” Rasmussen says.

Rasmussen says he and his wife want to raise their family here, but right now, he feels the need to fight what he calls, misinformation.

“There’s a lot of talk about the heritage and history of shaft mining over in Hurley. Open-pit strip mining is much different than the shaft mining of 100 years ago,” Rasmussen says.

Rasmussen helped launch a website called The Penokee Hills Education Project.

“Part of what I do is to take pictures, and last spring I got up in an airplane and took a lot of aerials. The pictures of the Tilden Mine up in Marquette are one way to look at it, or the Hull Rust Mine near Hibbing. These are huge open pit mines; it’s more likened to mountain-top removal mining down in West Virginia than it would be to shaft mining,” Rasmussen says.

Bill Heart’s passion runs just as deep, but instead of tweaking the web site, Heart shows people the landscape.

So, we head on to snow-packed roads.

“You can see the hills now, we’re getting closer to Mellen,” Heart says.

Heart pauses at Lake Caroline to point to a gurgling stream.

“That’s the very start of the Bad River, right there,” Heart says.

Just a trickle here, but as it nears Lake Superior, the Bad River gives way to wetlands - prized for sturgeon spawning and wild rice.

When we reach Tyler Forks River, Heart bounds ahead through the snow.

The ground is wet here and there with pooled water.

“In the summer and the fall it’s real mossy it’s just very wet; there are little springs all over in there,” Heart says.

They feed the river, keeping it chilled the way trout like it.

Heart says the iron mine would stand just a few hundred feet from this spot.

Also nearby, is the dream home John Franke and his wife built on Twin Lakes.

He says, a long time ago, his dad - a brewery worker for Pabst - stumbled upon the area’s beauty.

“That’s why we made the choice to come here; it was just so special and so private and we had such a part of our lives invested in this and our whole family did,” Franke says.

Franke says he never imagined a mine might break ground above their heads, touching the slopes where he has hunted and fished for years.

“Everything that’s on that slope flows this way; flows into Maki, flows into McCarthy into a huge swamp that eventually feeds into the east side of Caroline Lake. And then the Caroline of course being the headwaters of the Bad River is the lowest level of all of the lakes in this area, so everything is going to sooner or later wind up in the Bad River,” Franke says.

Kent Goeckermann is not worried about his retirement home and considered himself open-minded when it came to mining.

“I thought well people need jobs in the area, need work,” Goeckermann says.

Yet Goeckermann says unease bubbled up when he learned Wisconsin might change its mining rules in the process.

“You’ve got a good mining law in place and now they want to come in and quickly change it and reduce some environmental protections,” Goeckermann says.

Goeckermann says he spent more than three decades protecting what he calls a nearby gem; Copper Falls State Park.

The Falls is a piece of the massive Bad River watershed.

“And you think about everything that could possibly go wrong, plus all of the water off that hill comes right through Copper Falls State Park, virtually all of it at some point, and if that water is degraded, the whole park is impacted,” Goeckermann says.

Goeckermann says he now wants the mining operation to move ahead, only if it can be accomplished without influencing the air and water.

“Let’s slow down and take a long look at this as see what it’s actually going to do,” Goeckermann says.

Senator Neal Kedzie may be unable to oblige.

In a press release this week, the head of the Senate Select Committee on Mining Jobs stated, “Only a few short weeks are left for the committee to complete its task.”

The first public hearing on the bill is slated for Friday in Platteville.

{UPDATE: Wednesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announced that he has scrapped a special Senate panel’s version of the mining bill. Instead, he’ll have senators consider the legislation the Assembly already passed. Fitzgerald’s office says the public hearing slated for Friday in Platteville has been cancelled, but he has not yet ruled out a hearing in Ashland.}

In the finale of the series on mining in northern Wisconsin, Susan will meet with scientists studying the facts.