October 16, 2013 by Barbara With
The Ashland County Mining Impact Committee met this morning before a full house to hear information given by Dr. Tom Fitz, a Northland College professor who was part of the team that discovered abundant amounts of asbestos in the Penokee Hills. Present at the talk and standing in support of Fitz was Northland College President Michael A. Miller, PhD.
Many of the leaders of the Lake Superior Bands of Ojibwe were in attendance, including Mike Wiggins Jr. and Joe Rose of Bad River Band, and Rusty Barber and Mic Isham of Lac Courte Oreilles Band, as well as concerned citizens from around the region.
Fitz gave a presentation about where the grunerite was found, its characteristics and his concerns about the discovery. He warned that even though it cannot be confirmed that grunerite is present in other areas of the proposed mine site, that it was found so abundantly draws cause for concern. The possibility of asbestos being abundant beneath the surface throughout the entire range is quite likely, according to Fitz. Fitz also supported the idea that the public has a right to see the information from the drill cores.
Grunerite is the same mineral that led to the lawsuits against Reserve Mining in northern Minnesota in the 1970s. The company was sued for poisoning drinking water by dumping asbestos-laden waste rock into Lake Superior.
Dr. Joseph Skulan explained further concerns — “Even if asbestos dust can be confined to the mine when it is initially produced, that dust will be transported out of the mine as some point, creating additional sources of asbestos dust beyond the mine proper. So piles of waste rock will contain asbestos dust, and wind can blow the dust off of the waste heaps and spread it. Water contaminated with asbestos dust could be deposited on stream banks during flooding, creating an additional source of airborne asbestos when the dust dries. The point is that even if the dust is initially controlled, there will be other opportunities for the dust to be released as material from the mine is stored, moved and processed. ”
Skulan also explained the impossibility of engineering a way out of the problem. Pyrite, also present in the hills, requires dry stacking, and asbestos requires wet treatment. This makes it difficult to handle in the waste piles GTac plans to create on 3,331 acres of land leased from Iron County.
During public testimony, Ashland City Alderman Richard Ketring spoke up to say, “We don’t want to be an experiment for GTac.” Bad River Tribal Chair Mike Wiggins Jr. reiterated, “This is our home, and a Florida-based company is not part of this community.”
Washburn resident Jeff Silbert addressed the mining company, who did not have a representative present. “I would like to respectfully ask GTac to leave. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong people. We have a vision of 10,000 protectors in the hills to stop this mine.”
At the committee meeting that followed, Board Supervisor Donna Williamson assured the group that the county has the responsibility to close down any proposed mine that would create a public health risk, even if they had to go to court. She named Public Health Nurse Cyndi Zach and Zoning Administrator Larry Hildebrandt as key figures moving forward in how the committee decides to address the issue. “I am proud to serve with a team who feel the social, moral and legal responsibility to do something about this situation and to protect the residents of the county of Ashland.”
Zach was present at the meeting and added, “The county has a human health hazard ordinance on the books already.” The committee will review the existing human health hazard and proposed bulk sampling ordinances and determine if any additional protections are needed.
Ann Coakley, DNR Director of the Bureau of Waste and Materials Management, spoke briefly to say that the ball is in GTac’s court. “The department is still waiting to hear back from GTac concerning their incomplete application.”