Mining conversation: GTAC spokesman sits down with Wisconsin Reporter


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – Some 15 months after the Wisconsin Legislature passed a controversial mine bill that streamlines the permit process, Gogebic Taconite, the company that would build a $1.5 billion iron-ore mine south of Lake Superior, quietly goes about its permit prep work.

“We are right now heavy at it in the field on every kind of research you can imagine,” Bob Seitz, spokesman for Gogebic Taconite, or GTAC, as the company is known, tells Wisconsin Reporter.

On Tuesday, 22 contractors walked the four-mile stretch of Ashland and Iron counties, the site of GTAC’s proposed mine, collecting data, Seitzs said.

From wetland testing to cataloging plants and animal populations in the Penokee hills, the company is doing the extensive research that will be required to put together its environmental impact report and, eventually, the applications for the myriad permits needed through the state Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, to a lesser degree, the Environmental Protection Agency.

Life has been relatively quiet these days. Nothing like the shouting, the chanting, the name-calling that accompanied the Legislature’s divisive battle to land the legislation. Much quieter than a year ago, when environmental extremists protested on the site, destroying property and, according to accounts, threatened workers.

‘CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE: Bob Seitz, spokesman for Gogebic Taconite, tells Wisconsin Reporter the company’s $1.5 billion mine proposal could make Wisconsin the the “center of the universe for mining and manufacturing.” PHOTO: AP

In an extensive interview with Wisconsin Reporter on Wednesday, Seitz shared his thoughts on this “quiet stage” of the preparatory process, the EPA as “wild card,” and the game-changer that a $1.5 billion mine could be for Wisconsin. The following are excerpts from that conversation:

Wisconsin Reporter: Are you concerned about the EPA’s aggressive position in curbing CO2 emissions and its effort to pre-emptively shut down a proposed copper and gold mine in southwest Alaska?

Bob Seitz: It may sound counterintuitive, but we are trying to pull the EPA and the Corps of Engineers into the process as early as we can. The corps is much more willing to be involved. The EPA hates to show their cards early. They’ve got the Bad River (Chippewa) situation (The American Indian tribe that lives on a nearly 125,000-acre reservation in the region). The EPA represents the tribe. They will be wearing multiple hats … The wildcard is the EPA.”

WR: Are you worried the EPA could do what it did in Alaska, invoke the Clean Water Act provision to stop your project before it gets to the permit-application stage?

Seitz: I look at it from two different perspectives. One, how can anyone run this gauntlet and complete a project against what you kind of face with the EPA? The other is, you know that things have to be permitted. There has to be production of iron ore. There has to be manufacturing going on in this country. There is a necessity that these things have to happen. You have to be concerned, but I think the greater issue historically is that these things have been more dragged out to the point where it kills a project.

WR: What about the concerns posed by the environmentalists, critics of GTAC’s proposal?

SEITZ: If you can’t do this mine, I can’t imagine you could ever mine in Wisconsin. This is iron mining, this is as clean a process as you can have in mining. It’s mechanical, not chemical. Everything we see at the site is all within what you would expect … It’s really a question of can you do a project in Wisconsin. Then you get the feeling that the rest of country is falling in the same sort of system that has stopped mining in Wisconsin for many years.

WR: How much has the project cost GTAC so far?

SEITZ: This is an estimate, but for just the DNR oversight it’s about $350,000. They bill us … Everything they do with regard to the project is billed against the money we send down there (to the DNR). When it gets low enough, they ask for more.

Then there is the drilling. We have spent weeks at a time, 24-7, doing core drillings. It’s very expensive to do the work that goes into it. We are in (this project) with both feet.

WR: Former DNR Secretary George Meyer, who now serves as director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, has said the timeline for permitting would take longer than mine supporters have claimed. How long will it take?

SEITZ: George Meyer is a career bureaucrat under the old style of the DNR. What Gov. (Scott) Walker was trying to bring in is, you should be able to give somebody a yes or a no based on objective fact, within a reasonable amount of time. That was not the case when George Meyer ran the DNR. He killed the Crandon Mine by not making a decision. So that’s where he comes down as a leader of the opposition, an example of the old way of environmental regulation in Wisconsin where you kill projects by not making a decision.

We have to put our environmental impact report together, our reclamation plan, submit that to the state. Then that starts the clock ticking on a year-and-a-half process the DNR has. The question is when the clock starts. (Seitz said a year for impact statement and permit preparation is not unreasonable).

WR: Are you concerned about administrative delays?

SEITZ: There is always a concern, but the process is somewhat improved in that regard. The way George Meyer did it, the process was set up to invite litigation at every stage. You didn’t have a decision. Everything the DNR did was a decision point, which made it open for litigation. The new process is set up so litigation would come based on a real decision. I don’t think there’s as much of an opening for the kind of dilatory litigation.

Right now there’s a lawsuit against the DNR by environmental folks. I’d say that is purely aimed at trying to slow things down. They are suing over the sampling process … even though it was done during the time of the hardest frost so it wouldn’t be an environmental impact.

WR: What about the economic potential. Are you still on target to create thousands of jobs with the mine and the industries that support it?

SEITZ: It all comes down to the regulatory process. We are committed to this project. We are committed to bringing these jobs in. The only thing that can stop it is a no from any level of the regulatory process or a refusal to give an answer.

But once you put the shovels in the ground there is two years of construction. We’ll work up to a point where we have over 2,000 (construction) people on site. This would be the largest non-utility, private sector development in Wisconsin history.

Wisconsin is unique. We manufacturer the equipment that goes up there (to the mine). You’re buying it from one of two Wisconsin suppliers. Those suppliers have a network of suppliers, and they are heavily concentrated in Wisconsin. That’s a lot of steel which comes from a lot of iron. You look at the foundries. Wisconsin is No. 1 in the county in foundry production. The entire circle is right here in Wisconsin… This is the center of the universe for mining and manufacturing.”

Contact M.D. Kittle