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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Conspiracy Theory? Never.....

The Rat finds himself feeling a little sorry for Mr. Williams, the president of Gogebic Taconite, the day after the Assembly’s mining bill hit a brick wall in the Senate. Not because he didn’t get changes in the state mining law that would have allowed his company to take the iron and run at the expense of Wisconsin’s water resources, but because it sure seems like poor Mr. Williams became a pawn in a much bigger plan. Sure, he lied to folks in Northern Wisconsin when he said they didn’t need any changes in law to do their mine. Then a few months later he said GTac would stop pursuing a permit until they had “certainty” on a timeline for their permit review. And shortly after that a draft bill came out that set a ridiculous timeline, shut out the public, and exempted mining operations from environmental protections. But it was the business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, that was the tail wagging this dog.

Now Rat is by no means an expert on the economics of mining, but after a few conversations with some of the folks who are, discovered they were just as perplexed about how the GTac mine could actually pencil out. Taconite, the material they want to mine in the Penokee Hills, is by definition a low-quality ore. The percentage of iron in the rock is low, and it takes a lot of time and effort to sort out the good stuff. The Penokee deposit is also very deep, over 1000’ in some locations, and buried at an angle that makes it hard to get. Even with higher prices for iron, it’s hard to figure how the expense of extracting, processing and transporting the iron could be profitable. No doubt being able to go after it without worrying about pesky environmental regulations would help, but even if they were given free rein to dig as they pleased, it hardly seems worth it.

Rat is betting Mr. Williams figured that out for himself, but agreed to stay in the game to help with WMC’s real agenda – use the perfect foil of jobs for the depressed North and factory workers in Milwaukee to topple the first domino in their plan to dismantle environmental laws one industry at a time. Iron mining would be first, even though there was no guarantee GTac would actually proceed, then on to sulfide mining! And after that, sky’s the limit. Too bad the whole jobs screen started to fall apart at the final hour. Even though GTac claimed they would hire Wisconsin workers, they earlier noted no one here had the skills, and there were no provisions for job training. Then, the day before the vote in the Senate, WisBusiness reported that Milwaukee area mining equipment manufacturers could sell lots of stuff if GTac opened a mine, but no new manufacturing jobs would be created. That didn’t stop WMC from pulling out all the stops and getting union workers to lobby Milwaukee-area senators to vote yes. Luckily, they read the paper too and saw the bill for the sham that it was.

posted by the River Rat

Monday, March 5, 2012

Her Bark Is Stronger Than Their Bite

Nemahbin Dam and Mill

Ol’ Rat has not been the chronicler of good water news lately. So it’s extra satisfying to report some good news once in a while. Delafield dam owner and friend of the River Alliance, Margaret Zerwekh, is one step closer to removing her aging dam. Something she's been trying to do for over 10 years.

Margaret Zerwekh giving a tour of the millhouse, 2006.

Margaret, and her late husband Kenneth, have lived in the mill attached to the dam for over 60 years and Margaret has been maintaining it on her own since 1989 (read a great River Alliance profile of this feisty woman here). In the early 1990s, the DNR informed Margaret the dam was undersized to safely manage flows from large rain events and that homes and people downstream were at risk of being harmed if the dam failed in a rainstorm. Given her age (a sprightly 92!), the age of the dam (an even sprightlier 160) and the cost of rebuilding (conservative estimate: $500-700 K), Margaret made the decision to abandon the dam and restore the Bark River to “a nice little stream with bluebirds on the banks.” In 1998, summer rains swelled the Bark River and the DNR ordered the dam permanently drawn down due to concerns about dam failure and the potential to wash out homes downstream.

Neighbors on the pond were not happy. They rarely are in these circumstances. But this set of neighbors was particularly unrelenting. They tried to get the city to condemn her property and take the dam (that failed). They tried to create a lake district to take over the dam (failed). They took her to court four different times. The most recent legal maneuver was to take their sad tale of lost riparian rights and private nuisance before a jury in circuit court. Oh, and to ask for a million dollars in damages from a little old lady living in a mill.

Last week, that jury unanimously rejected the property owners’ claims. Margaret won her case.

For all their dogged determination, here’s something the neighbors did not do: sit down with the dam owner and try to reach a sensible agreement to grant them access to the river. They also squandered the opportunity to work with the dam owner, the City and other partners to make something beautiful happen in their backyard where an algae- and sediment-choked pond used to be. Instead, they dragged a 92-year-old woman into court for a week and tried to bankrupt her because she followed orders from the DNR. It’s hard not to feel a little vindication for the dam owner after all she’s been through. As for Margaret, there’s nothing like 60 years’ of living on a dammed river to bring the project into perspective. She has clearly said that after so many years of service to people, it’s time to let the river be a river again and to restore it to a healthy ecosystem. As she stated to the River Alliance back in 2006, “I don’t think people understand how it can be a great benefit,” she says. “If we do this right in restor­ing the river, people will come from all over the place to see what we’re doing.”

I know I’ll be there to see it happen. I’ll be the rodent in the water, popping the cork.

posted by the River Rat