Iron mining company slowing down on northern Wisconsin project; says hurdles look formidable

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MADISON, Wisconsin — Gogebic Taconite's field explorations for an iron mine just south of Lake Superior have come to standstill as company officials consider redesigning the contentious project in the face of mounting obstacles, the company's lobbyist said Monday.

The Florida-based company has parted ways with its consultants and is now analyzing data gathered this spring and summer, lobbyist Bob Seitz said. The mine remains a go, he said, but it faces formidable hurdles, ranging from fierce local opposition to new concerns federal environmental regulators could step in and halt the project.

"This process is hard," Seitz said in an interview. "Very hard."

Gogebic Taconite has been looking to dig a 4½-mile long iron mine straddling the Iron and Ashland County line in the Penokee Hills since 2011.

The project has been one of the hottest environmental issues Wisconsin has faced in decades. The company has promised the mine would create hundreds of jobs in the impoverished region but conservationists fear it would pollute one of Wisconsin's last pristine areas.

Republicans who control the state Legislature passed a bill in 2013 relaxing Wisconsin's mining regulations in an effort to kick-start the project. Gogebic workers have been taking ore samples and mapping out wetlands around the mine site. Seitz said data-collection efforts ended this fall and the company scaled back to its core five full-time employees in Hurley, ending consultants' contracts. He said the company is focusing on analyzing that data right now.

A number of hurdles have appeared in the mine's path, though. The Ashland County Board passed an ordinance in 2013 calling for Gogebic to place $100,000 in an account to reimburse the county for its mine-related expenses and not allow the account to drop below $50,000. The board passed another ordinance that year calling for the company to pay $10,000 to gather ore samples in the county.

"It's oversight and they don't want oversight," board Chairman Pete Russo said. "They want to go ahead and mine and whatever gets destroyed, the hell with it."

Seitz said the ordinance would give the county an open checkbook to spend. Gogebic is considering redrawing the mine's footprint so it doesn't cross into Ashland County, he said. That move would shave about 440 acres off the 3,200-acre site, he said.

"The county board has been pretty clear they don't want the mine there," Seitz said. "I don't think there's too many businesses that can just leave an open checkbook with somebody."

Iron County, meanwhile, is mulling an ordinance that would require Gogebic to preserve the area's water and air quality and demonstrate the mine wouldn't harm the local economy as well as pay more than $100,000 in application fees. Seitz said that ordinance "gives a chilling effect to the process." Iron County Board Chairman Joseph Pinardi didn't immediately return a voicemail Monday afternoon.

The company also is worried the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might step in and shut the project down before it starts. The agency this past summer severely restricted plans for a gold-and-copper mine in Alaska under the Clean Water Act, Seitz said. EPA media officials had no immediate comment.

What's more, Gogebic's surveyors have discovered far more wetlands around the site than anticipated, which could mean the company would have to pay more to create more wetland acreage elsewhere in the state to compensate for damage, Seitz said.

Gogebic still hopes to file a permit application with the state Department of Natural Resources by the end of the year, Seitz said.

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