Health Hazards Fuel Opposition Against Wisconsin Taconite Mine

Real Audio  RealAudio MP3  MP3

Posted Oct. 16, 2013

Interview with Frank Koehn, president of the Penokee Hills Education Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


The largest proposed mine in the history of the state of Wisconsin has generated opposition across a broad spectrum of the state’s citizens. If given the green light, the iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills near Lake Superior would produce taconite, a mineral used in the steel-making industry. The project is being promoted by Gogebic Taconite, or G-TAC, a company whose owners made large campaign contributions to influential Wisconsin state legislators in their successful effort to change state law to allow the mine to proceed. These regulatory changes were made despite the fact that independent scientific analyses have shown the ore to be mined contains high levels of asbestos, a substance that when inhaled increases the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and other respiratory diseases including asbestosis.

The company projects $1.5 billion in taxable revenue and 700 jobs. Republican supporters include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. While a broad coalition of opponents include most Democratic state legislators, environmentalists, city and county governments from the area surrounding the mine site, and all of Wisconsin’s 11 sovereign Tribal Nations, including the local Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Ojibway. Tribal activists are skeptical of the rosy income and job predictions and are concerned about asbestos health hazards and acidification of area waters.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Frank Koehn, president of the Penokee Hills Education Project, a grassroots group organizing on the environmental, health, social, and economic issues of mining that disproportionately affect Native and rural populations. Here, Koehn describes the impact the proposed mine on the local ecosystem and residents of the area, and what people are doing to oppose the mining project.

FRANK KOEHN: Here are the issues. The Bad River flows through the homeland of the Ojibway people, and it flows into the largest wild rice beds probably in North America, but certainly located around Lake Superior. How will the mine affect those wild rice beds? Just this week, the amount of asbestos that's been found in the rock in the Penokey Hills is overwhelming. Now, there is no safe level of asbestos in the air. That's deadly. We believe that U.S. Steel and others have not mined in the Penokeys because of the asbestos. And right now our experts, our geochemists, that have worked with the Penokey Hills Education Project, have worked with the Bad River tribe, have worked with the community groups, have gone in and said some of those rocks contain up to 50 percent asbestos. And when they do any mining, this is going to get into the air. One of the reasons this is so significant is not only will this be an open pit taconite mine, they're also going to build a complete taconite manufacturing facility on the site, which means they take the rock, they grind it up. First they have to blast it, then they have to mill it, grind it up, and the iron ore is separated from the waste material, and the ore is mixed with clay and it comes out as little round balls about the size of marbles, and that is then shipped to foundries and turned into steel. However, in the process of making this, about 70 percent of the rock is waste rock, and it will be almost a fine dust that has to be stored in piles, kept out of the water system, kept out of the air. We contend it is impossible to do that.

Now, the other problems we have are the acid in the rocks and in the background in the soil. When that's disturbed, that acid drainage gets into the rivers and starts affecting the pH of the water, and that's a concern for the Bad River watershed, which they tell us has about 40 percent of the wetlands that are left on Lake Superior.

The laws were changed in Wisconsin to allow for a mine to go in and degrade the water. It was the first legislation that was passed this year under the current administration in Wisconsin; they had to change the wetland laws. And of course, our governor made promises of creating some 250,000 jobs, which certainly hasn't happened. And it was decided that this mine was going to be the anchor of this great economic revival of the North Country. In actual fact, the mine will not be an economic revival.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What's the next step toward approval of the mine?

FRANK KOEHN: The company would have to negotiate with the local counties to come in and do any mining, Ashland and Iron counties.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What's the role of the camp that people have been occupying near the site for the past several months?

FRANK KOEHN: The camp is actually not so much a camp as it is a gathering and educational research station which people are setting up a traditional village; they're camping there. Primarily, it is Native Americans that camp there; there are others who go up and spend a day or two to do some research like cataloging the plants, the medicines, following the animals, the birds and things like that. They're hoping we can use this as a place to teach people how to harvest wild rice, to make maple syrup, mushroom identification – all kinds of things that go on in the woods. It's just so bountiful up there. We've had 3,500 people travel through that camp this summer, and we've traveled all over the state of Wisconsin, putting on presentations. We've been in the universities, the high schools, the coffee shops, the community centers, the libraries. And when we started out, there would be 10 or 12 people who showed up. And now when we go, there are literally hundreds that show up to hear our presentations.

Find more information on the Penokee Hills Education Project of Northern Wisconsin by visiting

Related Links: