Iron County Residents Concerned About Land Lease to Mining Company

Terry Daulton opens the Iron County Citizens Forum meeting at the Oma Town Hall.

Terry Daulton opens the Iron County Citizens Forum meeting at the Oma Town Hall.

June 6, 2013  by Rebecca Kemble

The Iron County Citizens Forum held a public meeting at the Oma Town Hall last night to learn about County Forest Law and the Iron County option to lease contract with Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a newly formed company with plans for a large mountain top removal iron mine in the region.

The meeting was organized by Terry Daulton, who convened the first gathering of the citizens forum in April, 2013 to “provide Iron County citizens with a venue for learning, discussion and participation leading to activities and events that affect Iron county residents in a significant way, with a special emphasis on natural and cultural resources and sustainable development.”

The initiative was stimulated by the passage of an iron mining bill earlier in the year that eases the way for a 22-mile long mountain top removal project proposed by GTac in the Penokee Hills near the shores of Lake Superior. The first 4-mile phase of the mine would be located primarily in Iron County.

Part of GTac’s proposal involves the lease of 3,331 acres of Iron County Forest land to use as a dumping site for mining waste and as the location for a taconite processing facility. People living in the area are concerned about the potential effects that millions of tons of sulfuric acid-producing pyrite dust would have on both surface and ground waters. The proposed lease area includes several pristine streams that are part of the headwaters of the Bad River watershed which drains into the Kakagon and Bad River sloughs, designated Wetlands of International Importance which form 40% of the Lake Superior Basin wetlands.

Mine and County Lease site.

Map showing the proposed first phase of the mine and the Iron County lease area.

Iron County residents have many questions about the process by which public land was leased to the mining company. Much of the land falls under County Forest Law (CFL), a state designation by which counties may lease timber harvesting rights to private individuals or companies in exchange for a stumpage fee. The Iron County lease with GTac is contingent upon removal of this land from County Forest Law.

On November 9, 2010, one week after Scott Walker was elected Governor and Republicans swept both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature, the Iron County Board passed a resolution supporting mining in the Penokee Hills and indicating its willingness to initiate the process of withdrawal of the land from County Forest Law.

In January, 2011, the Iron County Board signed an option to lease agreement with GTac, which had just been incorporated in the state of Delaware several days prior to the contract signing. Under the agreement, GTac pays Iron County roughly $10,000 a year to hold the option to lease the 3,331 acres open. The agreement is renewed every two years, but only by the will of GTac. The Iron County Board signed away their power to decide whether or not to renew the contract as part of the agreement. Iron County Forester Joe Vairus told the group that he was responsible for crafting part of the lease involving payments for county forest land, but that West Virginia-based GTac lawyer Jennifer Leahy and Iron County’s corporate counsel drew up most of the provisions.

The lease requires Iron County to apply for withdrawal of the land from County Forest Law, so once the option to lease is acted upon by GTac, the county must begin the application process.

DNR County Forest Law Specialist Joe Schwantes.

DNR County Forest Law Specialist Joe Schwantes.

At the meeting Wednesday night, DNR County Forest Law Specialist Joe Schwantes told the audience that of the 29 Wisconsin counties with county forest acres, Iron County ranks third after Douglas and Marinette with 174,261 acres so designated. He explained Wis. Stat. 28.11, the law governing administration of county forests, and described the required steps for withdrawal of land from the program as per Wis. Admin. Code chapter NR 48.

After an in-depth explanation of the normal withdrawal process, Schwantes then stated that the under the new iron mining law, all permits associated with an iron mining project are rolled into the mining permit approval process. Calling the Iron County request, “much larger than most,” he explained that the Environmental Impact Statement required for the withdrawal from CFL status would be “lumped together” with the overall mining permit EIS.

This creates a tricky situation for the residents Iron County. Although the mining permit process is initiated by the mining company, the CFL withdrawal process must begin with a request to the DNR from the county board. Due to the lease with GTac legally binding them to request withdrawal, it appears that Iron County residents, through their representatives on the county board, rescinded their rights to consider whether removal of this land from CFL for the purposes of storing mining waste and locating production facilities is an appropriate or desirable request.

Iron County Forester Joe Vairus.

Iron County Forester Joe Vairus.

In his presentation, Iron County Forester Joe Vairus explained that the initial step to refer the request to the County Forestry Committee by a resolution passed by at least 2/3 of the County Board had already been taken by virtue of the unanimous decision by the Iron County Board taken in November 2010. However, this resolution may not have been properly noticed in the agenda for that meeting. The agenda simply states, “Resolution: Support of mining proposal in Iron County.” It says nothing about withdrawal of land from CFL.

The text of Iron County Resolution 2773 reads:

“Whereas, Iron County is in need of living wage jobs to fuel our local economy; and

“Whereas, Gogebic Taconite, LLC is interested in open pit mining in the Town of Anderson, west of Upson; and

“Whereas, Iron County needs to withdraw county forest lands out of the managed forest program to facilitate the mining project;

“Now, therefore, be it resolved: That the Iron County Board of Supervisors authorizes the Forestry Committee to file an application to withdraw needed lands from managed forest program for said mining project, see attachment.

“Be it further resolved: That the Iron County Board of Supervisors does pass this resolution in full support of Gogebic Taconite, LLC opening the proposed open pit mine in the Town of Anderson.

“Motion by Innes, seconded by Thomas to adopt.

“Resolution adopted this 9th day of November, 2010.

“By: Dennis DeRosso, Chairman, Michael J. Saari, Clerk”

About 50 people attended the Iron County Citizens Forum.

About 50 people attended the Iron County Citizens Forum.

Many Iron County residents are outraged that such a significant decision was taken in their names without public input or information ahead of time. At an Iron County board meeting with GTac representatives earlier this year, some county board members appeared to be thinking twice about this decision.

According to minutes of the May 23, 2013 Iron County Mining Impact Committee meeting, the county is bracing for some legal trouble in the future. The committee is interviewing “lawyers for proposed mining project in the Town of Anderson.”

GTac’s exploration permit was approved by the DNR last week and they filed their Notice of Intent to begin drilling for eight core samples this past Monday.

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