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Politics & Government

Counties Try to Put Restrictions on Proposed Iron Mine

Pete Rasmussen

Iron and Ashland counties are attempting to exert some control over the huge mine planned for northern Wisconsin.

Supporters of the mine say the area needs jobs; opponents fear environmental damage.

The Legislature changed state law earlier this year, to ease the way for the Florida-based company Gogebic Taconite to mine iron ore. Pete Russo, chair of the Ashland County Board, says the rules protect the company’s interest – and no one else’s.

“I’m going to tell you right now, nobody is looking out for these counties,” Russo says.

Russo says his county wants to maintain its quality of life, if a mine becomes a reality. So the board recently passed two ordinances. They require pollution controls and noise limits for a mining operation. They also demand Gogebic Taconite provide funding for services an influx of residents might need.

“Sheriff’s department, heath and human services, the school district -- we don’t have the means or the funding to take care of an influx of people like that,” Russo says.

On Tuesday, Iron County could take similar action. Leslie Kolesar is chairwoman of the local mining impact committee. She says the county may require the company to keep a pot of money full, to cover costs local government may incur.

“The administrative fee deposit of $100,000 requires that when the county has spent that money, and it gets below $50,000, that the mining company add additional money.”

The local measures frustrate state Sen. Tom Tiffany. The Republican chairs the Senate mining committee and shepherded through the state legislation. Tiffany says some provisions, such as the never-ending $100,000 deposit, could turn off the company.

“I think the concern is that it could become an open checkbook,” Tiffany says.

Tiffany says other aspects, such as local environmental protections, are unnecessary.

“We wrote a very detailed mining law and we put tough environmental regulations in there, so that local units of government would not have to worry about that part of it,” Tiffany says.

Tiffany believes if ordinances are onerous, they could prevent a mine from being developed. Bob Seitz is spokesman for Gogebic Taconite. He does not believe new local laws will remain on the books.

“While these ordinances as they’re currently proposed wouldn’t allow mining to occur, the assumption is that there’ll be an agreement eventually that will supersede the ordinances,” Seitz says.

Seitz says in other mine projects, counties have approved similar ordinances, yet none was implemented. Wisconsin’s mining law allows communities and mining companies to reach agreements over permitted land uses and other local concerns.