When the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy comes to Hurley, Wisconsin, a place badly in need of better jobs, you’d better believe people will show up.

Thursday’s hearing on mining filled and then overflowed the Hurley High School auditorium with residents from Iron County and throughout the northwoods.  Many came to support the concept of a new iron mine and the promise of 700 new jobs with Gogebic Taconite.  Others came to oppose any new mines and preserve the streams, wetlands and clean water in the Bad River watershed and the aquifer underlying the Penokee Hills which would be destroyed or degraded by mining.  No one, not the mine operators or their opponents, believed that it is possible to do both.

The testimony from Bill Williams of Gogebic Taconite to the committee was very clear – if legislators want the “omelet” that an iron mine would bring to northern Wisconsin, some eggs are going to have to be broken.  The company cannot operate a taconite mine to remove and separate iron ore without destroying high quality streams, extensively filling wetlands, and digging a 1000′ hole into the zone of clean water that underlies the Bad River basin.  Williams made this plain when he stated, “We need the right to mitigate.”

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians is located directly downstream and downwind of the proposed project.  As Tribal Chair Michael Wiggins shared with the committee, “Our people will breathe, eat and drink the results from this project.”  That includes the sulfuric acid that would be released from overlying rock formations which many believe contain significant sulfide concentrations.

The questions Gogebic Taconite failed to answer were: What aspects of Wisconsin’s current environmental permitting laws prevent this project from going forward, and why do they need to be weakened or eliminated?  Or, why does public input need to be short-circuited when somebody wants to bring a new project to town?  One local man testified that the Penokee Hills today provides wildlife, timber, fishing, outdoor recreation, tourism, snowmobiling, and a high quality of life and, “why would we want to lose all that.”

One thing should be certain to anyone who attended – there will not be a way to permit this project without destroying natural resources, polluting water and air, and harming the quality of life for many people against their will.  The Wisconsin Legislature will need to decide very soon whether the short term boom of another mine will be worth selling our lands and water, and how much will it cost.