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Mining 4: Scientific Perspectives


Momentum to streamline Wisconsin’s mine permitting process is rocketing ahead.

This week, to accelerate Senate action, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald disbanded a bipartisan mining jobs committee - sending the Assembly’s bill to the budget committee.

It will hold a hearing Friday at the Capital, with a potential Senate vote next week.

Supporters of the faster permitting process say northern Wisconsin needs the jobs an iron ore mine would bring.

Critics insist the state needs time to study whether the operation would irreparably harm the environment.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence visited the region to gather residents’ views. She now concludes her series by chatting with researchers on the scene using what they know to predict how a strip mine might affect a pristine watershed.

I meet a couple of scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Ashland.

Ted Koehler says development has already impacted chunks of the local eco system.

He shows me the Fish Creek Coastal Wetland. It bumps up right next to the city of Ashland.

“Some of the differences in this area right here where we’re standing were caused by the highway – Highway 2 – running across out here,” Koehler says.

Koehler says if it weren’t for the causeway disrupting this wetland from Lake Superior, a magical interchange of water would be taking place.

“It’s not really a tide, but the natural ebb and flow of the lake – its water levels mostly affected by wind in the Great Lakes - cause the water levels to go up and down in these coastal wetlands and naturally flush the sediment into the lake,” Koehler says.

Koehler says the natural ups and downs of wetland waters also create a sublime habitat for water-resilient plants and creatures that thrive on them.

He says 10 miles east of here, the eco system is still functioning uninterrupted - in the Bad River watershed – the one the proposed iron mine would imprint. The river feeds seamlessly into wetlands, called the Kakagon Sloughs, and they interact with Lake Superior.

“The Bad River and Kakagon Slough Coastal Wetlands are the largest wild rive estuary on the Great Lakes. They are highly important for waterfowl and migratory songbirds in the fall when they’re on their migration heading south,” Koehler says.

Koehler says migrating birds feast on bugs and insects in the rice, and scientists are realizing young sturgeon thrive there too.

Henry Quinlan is a Fish & Wildlife fishery biologist.

"In the last 20 to 25 years agencies have been working to try and restore Lake Sturgeon, try to increase their numbers,” Quinlan say.s

Long ago, the population plummeted after people altered the ecosystem to create what they needed.

“When we began damming up rivers, when there was lot of paper industrial pollution or even prior to that the saw mill and port construction,” Quinlan says.

Yet Quinlan says sturgeon never stopped spawning in the Bad River system.

“This is a historic natural self-sustaining population,” Quinlan says.

The biologist can’t yet predict how a mine operating upstream might influence the balance of the watershed – there are still too many unknowns.

“Fish populations are obviously affected by anything that enters the water – whether it’s high level of sediment, whether it’s chemicals, or the temperature of the water will affect fish populations pretty substantially,” Quinlan says.

Wildlife biologist Bruce Bacon has his sights on the treetops and the American marten.

He says the small furbearing animal disappeared from its native northern Wisconsin due to unregulated trapping and...

“Probably more importantly lost habitat in the big log-over that occurred end of the 1800s early 1900s,” Bacon says.

In the 1970s reintroduction began and Bacon says marten is now thriving with the Penokees figuring into its success.

“Provides a lot of habitat for numerous wildlife including marten that do better in habitat with bigger trees and large woody debris on the ground as older trees faller over and the Penokees have a lot of that,” Bacon says.

A mining project will require tree removal. Bacon says it’s too early to know how extensive that removal would be and how wildlife would fare.

“Part of it is a matter of scale; what percentage of older habitat is going to get removed and removed for a very long time,” Bacon says.

Bacon says wildlife can be quite “elastic” but require contiguous rather than chopped up islands of habitat.

Tom Fitz knows a lot about the ancient geological formations of the Lake Superior region, including the iron it holds.

The Northland College geoscience professor has piles of maps outlining deposits.

“The Ironwood is shown as a strip of red and you can see how long it is, it goes all the way from over here all the way well into Michigan and there is a lot of iron there that’s for sure; it’s about 400 feet thick,” Fitz says.

The iron deposit pitches at an angle.

So Fitz says, the more ore mined, the more rock ABOVE it will have to be moved out of the way.

The layer is mostly composed of slate – which he says poses no environmental threat - but there are at least trace amounts of pyrite.

That raises red flags “If this gets crushed up and water goes through it; it can leach some elements that are toxic,” Fitz says.

Fitz says it’s critical to determine how much pyrite exists.

“And what would be its fate in these waste rock piles,” Fitz says.

Fitz says mining laws cannot change the composition of what’s under the surface and how wetlands, waterways and aquifers would react to open-pit mining.

Fitz’s colleague Randy Lehr thinks Wisconsin’s legislation might be overlooking an obvious wrinkle in permitting the mine project.

Lehr points to the proposed footprint another map.

“Devils Creek right here,” Lehr says..

He says those streams stand to disappear as a mine takes shape and the water is protected by federal law.

“Most of the time that is intended to say, there can’t be any increase in the discharge of a pollutant into that stream, but in this case we’d be actually talking about the actual loss of the stream, it would potentially just not be there anymore,” Lehr says.

Northland student Kristi Wilson hopes to be part of the next generation of what she calls enlightened environmental activism.

“To have people that actually work in a proactive way to negate the negative environmental impacts as much as possible so that these things can be done responsibly,” Wilson says.

The natural resources major thinks of this moment in Wisconsin history as being pivotal to her education and her future.