Mining company Gogebic Taconite announced on Friday that it's dropping plans to develop a mine in the Penokee Hills, and will close its offices in Iron County on Sunday.
The proposed iron ore mine project in northwestern Wisconsin has made headlines in the state and around the country over the past five years, prompting fierce debate and opposition from environmentalists and tribal members near the site.
The president of Gogebic Taconite, also known as GTAC, said it's continuing to explore a permit for the proposed mine at the behest of its parent company, The Cline Group.
"We aren’t saying it’s the finalized nail in the coffin," said Bill Williams. "We still think that we can look at it. The Cline Group has asked that, except right now it’s awfully expensive to maintain a Hurley office."
GTAC first proposed to to build the iron ore mine in 2010, estimating that it would generate $1.5 billion. The mine was originally proposed to span 22 miles in Ashland and Iron counties and be four miles wide.
A report paid for by the mining company projected that up to 700 jobs would be created from the mine and that it would have a lifespan of several decades.
Williams said they're continuing to look at a possible iron mine from a higher elevation. He said their original plans would have cost around $100 million in wetland mitigation. Even with smaller pits, Williams said wetland mitigation would still cost more than $50 million.
He also said a big concern is how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might approach an iron mine. He cited the EPA's intervention to stop the Pebble Mine in Alaska as the chief reservation for The Cline Group.
"What we don't want is to go through all this effort and work and have the EPA say, 'Maybe we don't want this to happen,'" he said.
Williams said the state had done its job to provide the company with more certainty in the permitting process. However, he wouldn’t say the same of federal regulators.
"They could drag it out another three to four years," said Williams. "That was the uncertainty that the parent company basically had."
Williams said they would like to sit down with the EPA and hear any objections or concerns from the agency.
He added that in the meantime, he will probably be looking for another job.
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News of GTAC closing its Hurley office comes on the heels of a vote by the Iron County Board earlier this week to give the mining company a payment extension on their option to lease mineral rights from the county. County Board Chairman Joe Pinardi said Williams left him a voice message about the news.
"It's like someone just clubbed you with a baseball bat. I've been thrown under the bus before, but this time I feel like the bus ran over me and backed up again," said Pinardi.
He said he would like to see another mining outfit explore the site if GTAC decides not to move forward.
"Something has to happen or we're going to be a ghost town," said Pinardi.
However, he said he’s still hopeful GTAC will continue with plans to mine in the county: "They've got lots of money invested — I can't see them walking away totally."
Pinardi said he hopes to meet with company officials on Monday.
Iron County Mining Impact Committee member Bob Walesewicz said the county will continue to reach for other economic opportunities. He said whether that relates to mining is up to the landowner of the site.
"We have learned more about the area, and evidently it may end up simply being too wet to move forward," said Walesewicz.
Added Walesewicz: "I’m also a businessman. I understand that sometimes things don’t work out the way we wish things to work out."
He said the county would like to vet a mine in the area should another party show interest.
Meanwhile, Williams said the mining company will follow all state and federal laws as they close their office in Hurley and plan to clean up all mining sites.
Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins could not be immediately reached for comment. Wiggins has been an outspoken critic of the mine, and compared the impacts of a proposed iron mine to that of a bomb being detonated in the headwaters of the Bad River Watershed.