February 18, 2012 by Barbara With
After months of being told that GTAC’s plans to dig a four-mile open pit iron ore mine in the Penokee Mountains can be done responsibly, two local scientists shatter that myth at a public hearing for Wisconsin’s new “ferrous mining bill.”
After Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) dismantled the mining committee on Wednesday, testimony was taken before Rep. Robin Vos (R) and the Joint Finance Committee on Friday. Undoubtedly the most stunning and certainly unexpected information came in the form of a bomb dropped by two independent local scientists, geologist Jason Huberty and geochemist Joseph Skulan. After conducting their own research on the rocks in the vicinity of the proposed mine site, Huberty and Skulan presented scientific evidence on how the bill takes advantage of the lack of knowledge of the public’s understanding of the terms “ferrous” vs “sulfide.”
Huberty, a 2010 graduate of UW-Madison with a Master’s Degree in geology, has done extensive fieldwork in iron ore mines around the world. Armed with samples from his own collection, Huberty explained in layman’s terms what the makeup of the Penokee rock actually is and what it means in relationship to GTAC’s plan to mine.
According to Huberty, the bill uses the terms “ferrous” to mean iron oxide ore, and “sulfide” to mean sulfide ore, presumed to be two different types of ore. But iron ore is associated with varying amounts of sulfide in the form of pyrite (ferrous sulfide). By distinguishing the two as different, Huberty claims the language hides the fact that there are sulfide minerals in the iron ore.
“The committee is not talking about this, but the bill treats the waste rock from the mine as if it does not contain the sulfide minerals. Representative Tiffany testified that the chemicals to process sulfide won’t be needed based on the mining of ferrous oxide, thereby taking out one of the risks. But this is a lie,” states Huberty.
“He also says this is a 21st century mining bill, and not like the 19th century mining bills. The fact is, their mining was safer. It took millions of year to concentrate the iron at the surface. And that iron, on the surface, has mostly been removed. What remains,” said Huberty, “is an iron that is approximately 60% waste silica.” And according to the only study ever done on the iron ore of the region, sulfide is present everywhere in the area. The implication is that the overburden, or what is left after the ore is removed, will be filled with sulfide ore.
Huberty’s testimony left Vos scrambling to divert attention away from his statements. Rushing through objections, Vos refused to allow questions and stubbornly continued reading off names of those who were to testify. Next up in the queue, however, was Huberty’s associate Joseph Skulan, a geochemist who has studied the oxidation of iron.
Skulan admitted to originally being a supporter of the mine based on the idea that ferrous ore is inert, meaning it can rust without doing damage to the environment. But after personally analyzing a sample of the core taken ten miles east of the mine site, Skulan discovered the makeup of the rock to be 20% pyrite, a major source of sulfide. Because of the sizable amount of pyrite mixed into the bands of iron, according to Skulan, “you’re talking about possibly 100s of millions…billions of gallons of sulfuric acid being produced. Pyrite also tends to concentrate toxins such as selenium and arsenic that will also be released.”
Noting the lack of actual science being discussed concerning the bill, Skulan made a trip north to gather rocks from the area to see for himself. With nothing published on the subject and the lack of cores being taken by the mining company, the actual composite of the rock below the surface remains a mystery. Minnesota iron ore averages 0.05% sulfur (which is about 0.1% pyrite).
“This is not an oxide mine. This is a mixed oxide sulfide mine.”
On hearing the truth, that the mining bill appears to be written to purposefully mislead the public, Vos once again attempted to bypass the Q&A session but was met with shouts from the audience demanding that Skulan and Huberty be heard. Rep. Richards (D) asked Skulan to explain the environmental consequences of having tailings mixed with pyrite.
“Pyrite is ferrous sulfide. It is thermodynamically unstable. If you mix it with water and oxygen, it oxides and produces sulfuric acid. Every ton of pyrite has the potential to produce one ton of sulfuric acid. It will cause direct damage from the sulfate, which in wetlands is reduced to hydrogen sulfide, which kills wild rice. You also have the direct action of the acidity and the toxins that have chemistry similar to sulfur and those will also be released…these rocks have been sitting here for 1.8 billion years, weathering very, very slowly. Now you’re talking about accelerating that by a factor of millions and releasing over the course of a few years a sulfate load that normally would take several million years to be released. You’re going to be swamping the ability of the natural ecosystem to deal with this excess sulfate load…You’re talking about cubic kilometers of rock. How there’s any hope of managing the runoff from that is just beyond me.”
In response to this stunning expose, Vos continued to rush the public through testimony in order to make his self-imposed 5 PM deadline for ending the hearing. But hopefully this testimony will begin the honest discussion of the potentially devastating effects of a mine in the Penokees. If what they are saying is correct, it is not possible to have responsible mining in the Penokees, and in fact, the environmental devastation could be on the scale of the Gulf Oil Spill Disaster.
Skulan has an MS in Geology from UW Madison and got his PhD in biology and geochemistry from UC Berkeley in 1999. He summed up the truth as he closed his testimony, saying emphatically that “science has not advanced to the point where we can do the impossible.”