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Iron and Ashland Communities Puzzle Over Local Mining Agreements

S Bence

Right now, the DNR and mining company Gogebic Taconite, or GTAC,  are in the middle of a complicated permitting process.

Towns and counties near the proposed iron ore mine site have set up their own ordinances to protect their communities. The State of Wisconsin is urging Iron and Ashland counties, along with the towns of Anderson and Morse, to work together to prepare agreements with GTAC.

Jeff Ehrhardt says that's easier said than done. He heads Morse’s mining impact committee, also chairs the joint committee that represents all four municipalities.

“Each municipality has its own agenda; we’re trying to coordinate these things and under state law, we’re supposed to negotiate any items to avoid duplications; that’s one of the things that’s charged to the joint committee,” Ehrhardt says.

Despite the state directive, each community is most concerned about its own residents, Ehrhardt says. For example, a busy rail line serving a mine would compromise emergency vehicles serving the Town of Morse.

“The City of Mellen currently provides the Town of Morse with emergency medical services," Ehrhardt says. "They’re talking about sending two one hundred-car trains through Mellen a day; that effectively would cut off half of the town from emergency medical services. Are we going to have to set up a fire ambulance system on both sides of the tracks, so to speak? What impact is mining going to have on our local roads and who responsible for paying and keeping them fixed."

Ehrhardt says Morse residents also worry about property values.

“Right now I can look at the northeastern sky and see a beautiful sky; Gogebic Taconite comes in, I’m going to see it all lit up and I’m going to listen to grinding 24 hours a day,” Ehrhardt says.

The town has already invested thousands of dollars sampling its water.

“We’ve hired to do water monitoring for us for the last three years, this will be the fourth year coming up; to development baseline data so we can find out, if a mine does open here, we can tell if there is any impact to the waters,” Ehrhardt says.

The regional impact committee, that pulls representatives from all four municipalities, is concerned that there won’t be enough money for them to explore the potential impacts of a mine. The state has capped the amount of money GTAC must plunk down for local studies at $225,000.

Credit S Bence

County clerk Mike Saari says Iron County has already spent of tens of thousands in legal and administrative fees to formulate mining ordinances.

“And we’re going to spend $100,000, there is no doubt,” Saar says.

Saari’s words are cut off by Pete Russo. He represents Ashland County. Russo is afraid Iron County will gobble up all of the funds.

“How can anybody really judge how much you’re going to spend on experts when you don’t really know,” Russo says.

Executive secretary of the Investment and Local Impact Board Dave Steines urges the four jurisdictions to plan jointly.

“With limited funds you really need to be working together as much as possible to ensure that you’re smart about how much you’re spending," Steines says.

The Investment and Local Impact Board was dormant, until Governor Walker reactivated it weeks ago.

The Board sent Steines north to gage the range of local concerns. The Board’s job is then to decide how much money communities will receive for expenses related to mining.

“I would heavily advise that you put them down in writing in your words," Steines says. "We can tell them what you just said, but we prefer that so we can hand them to the board in your words, saying, these are our issues. We prefer that you tell them (the board)."

Buffeted by an occasional grilling, Steines tells the regional representatives that his board is committed to distributing funds fairly.

Charlie Ortman says he fears the process is moving too fast. He ran and was elected to the Ashland County Board a couple years ago, when the mining debate started sizzling.

“There is no analysis of the implications of mining anywhere for us to make decisions on, whether this is a good idea or not. They seem to be talking about a local agreement now,” Ortman says.

Yet, Ortman says a regional planning body has offered to help.

“The Northwest Regional Planning Commission has been trying to get the folks in Ashland and Iron County and the affected municipalities – town of Morse and Anderson to do a socio-economic study. They’ve offered up a price range from $50,000 to $250,000,” Ortman says.

Several local officials say they think Ortman’s suggestion is a good one, but they hold little hope the state's Investment and Local Impact Board will help offset the expense of a costly regional impact study.

As of now, the Board has only vague plans to meet again, before the end of the year.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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