Extracting hard truth from rocks of mining debate

A mining company with designs on taconite reserves in northern Wisconsin is back in the news. Gogebic Taconite had suspended its plans to mine in Iron County last spring because of issues related to Wisconsin’s environmental permitting process. Wisconsin, unlike Minnesota and Michigan, hasn’t had active iron mining in a long time and the regulatory environment is different.

At first blush, you can read the archives on this story and see echoes of the same argument going on over nonferrous mineral mining in northeastern Minnesota, where developers are eying new mineral reserves in natural areas that have seen little or no mining in a very long time.

But as this recent analysis by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel shows, the economic reality of the old jobs vs. the environment argument is mixed. While iron mining produces good jobs it does not guarantee a balanced healthy local economy, nor could the industry deliver that even if it wanted to. Modern mining means good jobs for many, but measurable effect on the landscape and a sort of economic co-dependency that is both a blessing and a curse.

Here on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, the iron mining industry is running strong. These companies have achieved a sort of stability and strength that is frankly unprecedented in the time since taconite replaced natural iron ore as the primary resource for the American steel industry. But look at those economic stats in the Journal-Sentinel article and tell me that strength for one industry equals strength for all. It plainly does not, and the sort of wishful thinking espoused by backers of this Gogebic Taconite project is the same sort of thinking that produced this problem in Minnesota and Michigan.

Further, and finally, I’d really like to know more about these Gogebic folks. First they propose a mine. Then they reveal that their ore body is far deeper in the ground than those found in Minnesota or Michigan. They’d literally have to move a mountain to get at what they need. Then they encounter some resistance on permitting — nothing that would surprise a modern developer — and call it off. Now they’re back? Asking for what? A permit process less cumbersome than what’s found in Minnesota or Michigan, two states that have lived alongside mining a very long time.

I very much doubt that even the generous permit process Gogebic wants would address the problems they’ve got over there, but they’ll drive a whole state into the sweaty vapors over it.

But perhaps I digress. My position on mining remains the same: Mine what you need in an efficient, least-intrusive way, protecting natural landmarks and the people’s interest in water, land and air. But don’t count on mining to save your town in the 21st century. Just stop that. Trust me on this.

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