June 27, 2013 | Vol. 94, No. 150

G-Tac official: Proposed Iron County mining ordinance flawed

HURLEY — On Monday night, the Iron County Land and Zoning Committee will host a public hearing on draft ordinance pertaining to mining in the county, specifically the proposed iron mine in Upson.

The 6 p.m. hearing will be at the Iron County Memorial Building.

The Gogebic Taconite mining company has found a number of provisions that cause a "real problem" in the draft ordinance, if not corrected.

"The initial draft has a number of provisions that would make it impossible to mine here," G-Tac spokesman Bob Seitz said. "It is an initial draft, so we don't want to overreact, but if they move too fast without understanding the provisions fully, it could cause a real problem."

During Tuesday's Iron County Board meeting, questions were raised by board members as to why the ordinance was being created so quickly. Members of the zoning committee said they were advised to get an ordinance together "as soon as possible."

The goal was to host the public hearing Monday and possibly have the full county board vote on it during a special meeting the following day.

Similar ordinances have already passed in Ashland County and in the towns of Anderson and Morse, both in the proposed mine site.

According to Seitz, the state mining law allows for counties to have a mining ordinance, and it also allows counties to develop an agreement through local mining impact committees.

If an agreement is reached, it can supersede the ordinance.

"Many folks are saying, 'What's in the ordinance might not matter that much, because we can just get an agreement,'" Seitz said. “But that's a dangerous game to play because we have to take the ordinance seriously, and all of the provisions of the ordinance seriously. This stuff has been put into law, local ordinance law."

The current draft in Iron County was created using examples from other Wisconsin counties, including Ashland.

"Language was borrowed from other counties, using ordinances that were never used to regulate metallic mining in those other counties," Seitz said. "You have to be careful when using an example that has never been used to regulate."

Regulation issues

A major problem with the ordinance, according to Seitz, is the amount of regulation the county has. Many of the provisions are left "open-ended," Seitz said, which could open the county up for liability.

"If they allow themselves unlimited power, some people are going to expect them to exercise that unlimited power," Seitz said. "For instance, if they exercise it in an extreme way, then it could end up having to be defined. If not defined by them, then by the courts, and it could be us and them in the courts or opponents of the mine and them in courts. If you are too general on things, it leads to that."

Seitz said the mining company must deal with:

—Regulations from the federal government through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

—State government through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

—County government through Ashland County's ordinance and potentially Iron County's ordinance

—Local government through the towns of Morse and Anderson ordinances that conflict with each other in some cases.

A key to the regulations is finding balance. According to Seitz, some parts of Iron County's ordinance work, and other parts allow the county to create its own department of natural resources.

"The DNR has assigned 10 people to this project," Seitz said. "They have the expertise of 10 different people in 10 different disciplines, and the local ordinances require the same kind of expertise. We're concerned with the ordinance, as it is currently drafted, that it would duplicate a lot of what's being done at other levels, and it would be very expensive.

"Developing a whole other level of regulatory government isn't good in the long term for Iron County," he said.

Reclamation

Another major concern is a provision dealing with reclamation of the mine site.

The provision states"reclamation must begin within one year after the closing, whether temporary or permanent, of any mine," Seitz said.

However, temporary closure could easily become permanent closure, he said.

"Let's say that we have a recession like 2008, and we have to shut down," Seitz said. "This would require us to cover up the ore body, and undo everything that has been done. That could make it impossible to come in and mine again. If you fill the pit, then you are done mining."

Reclamation is required by the state, and forces mining companies to "fix" the area after a mine is closed. Companies are required to supply bond money to the state so if a mining company were to "disappear," the land would still be reclaimed.

"The idea is to never be left with just a pit, piles of tailings, all that, like the way things were done in the past," Seitz said. "Under the normal law, if things go the way they should, we could complete 35 years of mining and either ask for a permit to do more, or implement the reclamation plan and pay for that. If that doesn't go as planned, the state would still be able to do the reclamation here."

Another issue is raised by the draft. Iron County wants to have a reclamation plan, just like the state, and also requires similar bonding. This could cause a potential conflict on how to reclaim the land, and would require G-Tac to pay twice for two different results, at the state and local levels.

Finances and operation

One provision of the draft includes an "open checkbook" aspect, according to Seitz. The provision says after an initial deposit of $100,000 is given to the county, if the account balance goes below $50,000, the mining company has to make another deposit of $50,000 within 15 days.

The payments would take place during the duration of the mine (an estimated 35 years) and for an additional 10 years after the mine closed.

"The county can spend whatever it wants and all we can say about it is, 'Here's your check for $50,000,'" Seitz said.

Ashland County and the town of Anderson have similar provisions in their ordinances.

A provision also asks for hours of operation for the mine. Seitz said it could possibly cause the hours to be limited. "If you say the hours of operation are going to be 12 hours a day instead of 24, at the minimum, you've cut employment for the project in Iron County by half," he said.

The mine would need to run 24 hours a day, seven days week because of the climate conditions in the area, according to Seitz.

"If you turn off this machinery in below zero weather, it will not start again," Seitz said. "A conveyor belt that has been turned off will have the material on the conveyor freeze in place and break when you start it. It's critical that this process keeps going."

The town of Anderson's ordinance limits operations to 12 hours a day.

Other concerns

Another provision deals with the county accessing the mine site from "time to time" to inspect mining operations.

According to Seitz, the site will be open to inspection, but the provision does not include a limitation based on proprietary reasons.

"If the DNR comes on to inspect, some of the things they look at are proprietary," Seitz said. "Other corporations pay a lot of money to see how you are operating, if your processors are better than theirs or if you are competitively better so they can steal your ideas. The state recognizes that."

DNR inspections are not public, except for the results of the inspection, however the provision "grants the county, its officers, employees, agents, consultants, contractors and representatives the applicant's consent and permission to enter, from time to time" for the purpose of "inspecting, measuring, testing, gathering, sampling, photographing, assessing and monitoring."

The concern is with people taking photographs of equipment.

"If they come in and take photos of a piece of equipment that works differently from others, it becomes public record, anyone can have it. There is no protection for us for proprietary issues," Seitz said.

A final concern is the definition of the actual mine site. According to the state and federal government, the mine site is 3.5 miles long, while the ordinance in Iron County has it listed as 22 miles.

The concern lies with the number of reports that would have to be submitted at each level, dealing with the mine site, whatever definition it may be.

"When we have to answer questions for the DNR, it's 3.5 miles that we focus on," Seitz said. "For the county, it's a much larger stretch."

The actual mining site consists of 3,122 acres that will be disturbed by the project, and 2,692 are in Iron County.

"The most important thing is that the county board has been very supportive of responsible mining, and we would hope that they would take the time to develop an ordinance that both protects the interest of Iron County and encourages a mine to Iron County," Seitz said.

"We understand this is part of the process and this has been a positive relationship and will continue to be a positive relationship. We just need everyone to understand the impacts of this potential ordinance," Seitz said.