Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Sunday, February 18, 2012. A link to the essay appears below.
Water. You can’t live with it. You can’t live without it. If water is part of a river, stream or wetland that obstructs the expansion of an enterprise, then water is something the enterprise can’t live with. If the water lies within a broader view that encompasses the sustainability of life on Earth, then it’s water we can’t live without. The water remains the same. Only the views of it are diametrically opposed.
The enterprise side will invariably cite the positive economic benefits that will accrue from what it views as an insignificant, negative impact on water quality and, thus, the environment. Call the set of arguments in support of enterprise the economic impact view.
The sustainability view invariably cites the significant, negative impact on water quality that results from an enterprise interfering with the natural order. Call that set of arguments the environmental impact view.
The water that will be impacted by the approval of a permit application by Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTAC) to extract taconite from a 22-mile long stretch of the Penokee Hills lying east and west of Mellen, Wisconsin in Ashland and Iron counties is a matrix of aquifers, wetlands, lakes, streams and rivers that combine to form a watershed that sustains the land and life around it while flowing north to empty into Lake Superior.
GTAC will concentrate taconite from the iron deposits within the land it leases using a process that uses water taken from aquifers below the mine site to suspend ore in a solution from which iron is separated from its parent rock by magnets. The process repeats until the maximum of iron can be isolated and then concentrated into taconite pellets. The remaining material, called gangue, is destined for settling ponds and tailing piles.
Among the many commitments that GTAC makes through statements on its website is a promise to avoid impact on streams and wetlands where possible and to minimize and/or mitigate harm if those impacts cannot be avoided. It also promises no net loss of streams and wetlands. Further it says it will comply with the National Clean Water Act and all effluent limitation regulations.
If we take GTAC Taconite at its word then it’s fair to ask why the Wisconsin State Legislature is bothering to stage a GOP-sided debate over a bill to streamline the mine permitting process. Why don’t we simply allow Gogebic Taconite to be the good neighbor it wants us to believe it is?
The answer to that, of course, is that GTAC isn’t really the good neighbor it claims to be. If we forgive the economic extortion tactic GTAC is using when it says it will pull out of the state and take its 700-job promise with it if the permitting process isn’t streamlined, then we would at the same time be foolish to overlook the meaning behind the wording of its promises concerning water quality and how they handshake cordially with language in the mine-permitting bill being advanced in Madison.
The latest version of the permit-streamlining bill contains provisions that dovetail nicely with the language of GTAC’s promises. For example, the bill requires the mining company to search for nearby sites on which to build artificial, or mitigated, wetlands to replace those destroyed. But the DNR can still give the mining company approval to build those artificial wetlands elsewhere in the state. The bill gives streamlining an ironic new meaning by granting the DNR power to allow mining waste to be dumped in a floodplain.
GTAC is attempting, with the aid of a compliant, GOP-controlled state legislature, to alter the saying: It is always easier to later ask forgiveness than it is to first ask permission. In essence, GTAC wants the state to make it easier for it to ask permission to swap its impact on wetlands with questionable attempts at artificial mitigation so that it will later find it easier to ask forgiveness when those attempts end in failure. The problem is that the likelihood of GTAC asking forgiveness is slim to none and it will be gone before we find ourselves forced to live with the negative effects of its deception.
Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal: http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/opinion/column/guest/karl-garson-gogebic-taconite-their-mine-our-water/article_ff89b544-59c2-11e1-bc24-0019bb2963f4.html