Facade of “Responsible Mining” Crumbles; New Mining Bill Proven to Mislead the Public

February 18, 2012 by Barbara With

Hearing room for AB426 February 17, 2012 Photo: Leslie Amsterdam

Hearing room for AB426 February 17, 2012 Photo: Leslie Amsterdam

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.

Geologist Jason Huberty testifies about the low grade of the iron ore in the Penokee Range.

Geologist Jason Huberty testifies about the low grade of the iron ore in the Penokee Range.

“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.

Scientist Joseph Skulan testifying before the Joint Finance Committee on the extreme environmental dangers a mine poses to the Penokee Hills.

“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.”

See a video of their testimony here.

February 17, 2012 original press release here

February 18, 2012: Update

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21 Comments on “Facade of “Responsible Mining” Crumbles; New Mining Bill Proven to Mislead the Public”

  1. Hollis Thompson February 19, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    If this had been on the up and up, all this expedited process and revamping regulation would not have been necessary. It’s an example of the ends (making money) justifying the means (cramming crape down the throats of the people of Wisconsin). Theses robber barons want to come in, scoop up the profits profits and leave with a toxic dump full of sulfuric acid. And something tells me there will be some trinkets for the Republicans who are doing their damnedest to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. I wouldn’t trust anyone on the mining company’s as far as could throw the empire state building.

  2. Tom Podlesny February 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Listened and then later watched the hearing and testimony and thank you for your accurate article.As an Iron County resident I believe this article would be very important news to the people up here.Would you please consider putting it in The Iron County Miner,Ironwood Globe,Ashland Daily Press and the Ashland Current.We have asked a local geology professor familiar with the region for his comment also on the article.Thank you,Tom Podlesny

    • Simon Denomie February 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

      I agree, this should be reaching the people who live in these counties even if they aren’t following mining news. They would be affected by the loss of jobs and environmental resources caused by this mine.

      • Barbara With February 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

        The loss of everything. The implication these two scientists are bringing forward is mind boggling. Billions of gallons of sulfuric acid. BILLIONS. But once they get their foot in the door, they would create a nightmare that we would never recover from.

    • Barbara With February 19, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

      Tom, I think Iron County residents need to hear this as well. As a resident of Ashland County, Madeline Island in particular, I was shocked to hear this testimony. Basically, what it says is, it would not matter what kind of process any company has to mine here, because of the makeup of the rock, it would be environmentally devastating because of the rock. No one could create a process to overstep this.

      You have permission to reprint anywhere of course. Spread the word. Imagine if we DID NOT Know this…..basic science, something snake oil salesman Bill Williams has no idea about.

  3. Linda Atkins February 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    I was at the hearing on Friday, experienced the feeling of people when these two scientists testified, watched the Republicans try to gather their thoughts, watched as they continued to rush people through their testimony, because they had already made up their minds. I hope people know this “bill” is not only for the Penoke Hills, but for the whole STATE of Wisconsin, meaning places like the Baraboo Hills could be at risk for dangerous open pit mining that would destroy the environment..hopefully, people who live in that area are much more astute about the hazard of poisoning the water with experience of Badger Army that they will stop all this from happening before it ever comes up for a vote.

    • Barbara With February 19, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

      Linda I hope this article opens the door for more average citizens to be able to do their own analysis of their endangered area. Even though the big focus has been the Penokees (and we all feel strongly that its about the water up here) the entire state is in danger because of this bill. THIS is what we need to get out there…to everyone. Especially our legislators…..

  4. Kelly February 19, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    Another big issue with the mining bill that I have not heard much discussion about is how this bill will effect the FEMA floodplain insurance in the state. If the bill passes there is a possibility that FEMA would remove flood insurance availability throughout the state, which in itself could be devastating.

  5. Theresa February 19, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    Anyone who wants to see and understand what happens when Pyrite is exposed to air and water should Google about the Skytop I-99 project in State College, PA where tons of pyrite was dug up and used in the foundation of the highway overpass. Sulfuric acid began showing up in people’s wells and threatened some of our best trout streams. It has cost millions to clean-up. The same thing happened decades ago when I-80 came through our area. The trout streams that it contaminated are still dead.

  6. Heather Bott February 20, 2012 at 12:59 am #

    Theresa’s comments should be verified and published far and wide here. Theresa, do you live in WI now? I am planning on contacting WUWM in the morning. Do you have more to say on this topic??

  7. Laura February 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    I am grateful that, after all the voices that spoke at the assembly hearings and have identified pyrite as a part of their local soil, finally someone is getting recognized. The mining company stopped their scheduled environment testing procedures and started insisting on passing the bill without revealing what most northern citizens were concerned about, the future of Wisconsin water as a result of the sulfide contaminants. I want to thank the voices that came forward that represent the future of our people, wildlife, land and water.

  8. MoJoWork'n August 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Thanks, great information. Posted to the “Wisconsin” group at D.U.
    Better late than never.

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