A legislative counsel memo produced at the request of Democrat state Sen. Bob Jauch hinted at a tactic that Iron County Wisconsin officials appear to be using in a draft version of an ordinance designed to regulate iron ore mining. At issue is the disposal of tailings, leftover material that results when ore has been extracted from surrounding minerals and rocks.
The draft Iron County ordinance flatly denies a mining company permission to dispose of ore tailings in Iron County if they come from a mine – or part of a mine – not located in the county. That creates a major problem for Gogebic Taconite, a company that plans to open a mine that straddles both Iron and Ashland Counties. Gogebic’s current plan was to use land in Iron County for the environmentally responsible disposal of all tailings from the mine. If the ordinance passes without amendment it could force the company to substantially change its plans.
Already, the new fees and extra regulations imposed by both a recently passed Ashland County ordinance and the proposed Iron County ordinance are creating difficulties for the mining company. Irrespective of any local proposals, the mine was always going to comply with stringent federal environmental standards and state Department of Natural Resources regulations.
In late June, Sen. Jauch appeared at a meeting of Iron County citizens and touted the existence of a memo his office asked a state attorney to prepare on the topic of what local communities could do to regulate a mine. Media Trackers asked Jauch for a copy of the memo and his office sent it to us.
“People really want to know what can be done,” the aging Democrat told the crowd. “The one thing you have left is the ability to establish local zoning ordinances.”
Jauch said he wasn’t going to debate the merits of legislation passed earlier this year reforming mine regulations, but he did say that local communities had the final say in whether a mine would go forward. “As George [Meyer] said, you have to protect your own interests,” Jauch remarked as he urged the crowd to action.
George Meyer is a former Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and he currently leads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. He was the key speaker at the even Jauch spoke at. Meyer explained that so far the Federation hasn’t taken a position on the mine, but he did point out that he and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation have lobbied long and hard against legislation in Madison that overhauled mine regulations.
“We were opposed, and were very active,” Meyer said of his efforts against mine legislation.
“The benefits or problems are ones that will be yours for many, many years,” Meyer said of the mine, “And this is the time to do something about it.”
Doing something about the mine at the local level includes passing ordinances that regulate mining and impose new fees and regulations on mining companies.
According to the legislative counsel memo that Jauch had prepared, a state attorney said one of the ways Iron County in particular could regulate a mine would be to limit who – or what kind – of tailings could be disposed of in the county. The memo read in part:
For instance, there has been discussion of a potential ferrous mine in Iron and Ashland Counties. Apparently, the mining waste site for that project would be located on land owned by Iron County that is currently in the county forest program, and other portions of the potential mining site are in private ownership and are enrolled in the managed forest land program. Mining on such a site would require removal of this property from the managed forest land and county forest programs and the transfer of real property rights from Iron County to the mining company.
The memo then notes that a local government may want to take several factors into consideration and consider making policy based on the fact that tailings from Ashland County would be deposited in Iron County.
Each of these actions would trigger a set of considerations for the governmental entity involved to weigh as it evaluates the impacts of a mining project.
A draft version of the Iron County mining ordinance succinctly declares:
(1) No tailings from outside the County will be disposed in Iron County.
A vote on the Iron County mining ordnance was cancelled this week. While both Sen. Jauch and former DNR Secretary Meyer work to foment or otherwise hint at aiding opposition to the mine, the project is still moving forward at this time.