Is it Really Worth the Trouble?

Some things are hard for me to understand.  Like why it’s easier to dig iron ore from deep within the earth than to mine our nation’s refuse heaps and scrap piles for discarded iron.

On Friday I had the opportunity to tour an area of northern Wisconsin that is under consideration for an open-pit taconite mine.  My hosts included representatives of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians as well as Wisconsin Trout Unlimited, and the Bad River Watershed Association.  This issue has roared into the state’s spotlight largely because of requested changes to the state’s mining regulations, and when the opportunity came to tour the region I jumped at it.

The region has a history of mining when, at the turn of the last century, shaft mines and the iron that came out of them drove a local jobs boom.  But, as I understand it, those historic mines were quite different than what is being proposed today in two key ways.  The first is the quality of the ore.  The ore that was mined from the shaft mines was 60% iron, allowing it to be easily be formed into pellets to ship across the Great Lakes to manufacturing sites.  Secondly, the vein ran relatively close to and parallel to the earth’s surface meaning that one didn’t have to dig all that far to get at it.  I have no doubt that it was dirty, dangerous work at times, but the impact to the region’s waters and fisheries was relatively limited.

The mines being considered today are quite different, and there-in lies the concerns over potential water quality and quantity impacts.  For one, ancient tectonic activity tilted these beds to a 70-degree angle, meaning that following a vein requires digging deep – very deep.  It also means removing vast quantities of “overburden”, eventually forming an open pit that might be 500′ deep (or deeper) and well more than twice that wide.  In addition to needing to find a place to store the overburden (and transport it there), locals have questions about what happens to the Bad River and its tributaries.  There are concerns about impacts to groundwater levels as well as water quality., better explained in this interview with Dr. Tom Fitz, Associate Professor of geology at nearby Northland College.

The other major difference between this mine and historic mines is the quality of the ore.  Unlike historic ore, this one is “taconite“, a low grade ore with only 23% iron that has to be crushed, processed, and heated to bring it to marketable concentrations (60%).  Apparently this is process is so energy intensive that it would require the construction of a new coal-fired power plant, presenting yet another set of environmental (including water) challenges.

This proposal is stretching the community to its limits, creating strains in the grocery isles and dividing the community along predictable “jobs vs. the environment” lines.  For now, groups like the Bad River Watershed Association are trying to keep heads cool and ensure that a transparent process with good data and local input drive the conversation.

But meanwhile, I’m left scratching my head as to how it can be worth the trouble.  How does it pencil out to be cheaper to move entire landscapes, build and operate new power plants, and risk local waters than it is to convince society to recycle more? How much iron sits rusting in junk yards and abandoned rail lines? How much do we throw away on a daily basis without thinking about it? With apologies for feeding stereotypes, I routinely see iron reclamation opportunities along the rural roadsides of West Virginia when I return there each summer for vacation.  Before we start new problems, can’t we feed our metallic needs by cleaning up messes we’ve already created?

One of the themes from Charting New Waters is to look for solutions that solve multiple problems rather than “solutions” that create new problems.  So, Sunday morning, as I packed up my campsite near the proposed mine, I stumbled upon a rusting #10 tin can.  I brought it home with me, leaving the woods a little better than I found them. Soon I will take it, along with a carload of my other scrap metal findings, to Action Metal Recyclers in Milwaukee where it will rejoin the American economy.

As I see it, it doesn’t have to be jobs vs. the environment.  When it comes to scrap metal, it’s jobs AND the environment.  In fact, the more I think about it, there are a lot of old tools in my garage that can add to the scrap pile and drive our local economy while also cleaning out the garage, thus making my husband very happy.  Now THAT’S a solution!

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