Mellen, WI (NNCNOW.com) - Few things have divided Northwestern Wisconsin as deeply as has a proposal to open an iron ore mine near Mellen.
The plan has created open hostility among those who support the idea for its economic impact and those who fear it will forever damage the environment of the region.
But you don't have to look too far to see how working iron ore mines have impacted the people and environment of the Northland.
Iron ore mining has been part of the Northland way of life for more than a century.
Mining is the backbone of the Iron Range economy.
And while a battle is currently raging over plans to open copper nickel mines most Iron Rangers support their taconite industry.
"Our air quality is great up here, our water quality is good," said Frank Ongaro, Director of Mining Minnesota.
Much of that has to do with regulation and oversight through the years.
"Mining companies have been very progressive in working with regulators to address those things," continued Ongaro.
Lawmakers in Northwestern Wisconsin say the Republican controlled legislature has been too willing to bend the rules for Gogebic Taconite.
"This legislature forgot they were working for the public and instead acted like they were on the board of directors for the company," said Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar).
Spokespeople for the G–Tac mine say the environmental standards they will be expected to live up to are extremely high.
"We have the most stringent iron mining laws in the country," said Bob Seitz, director of external affairs for the company.
"This mine will have a very negative impact because there is no way they can keep the water clean," said Frank Koehn, president of Save the Water's Edge.
Members of the La Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwa agree and have set up a protest camp in the region where G–Tac wants to open a mine.
"The goal of setting up the camp is to show the people what they are giving up if the mine goes through," said Camp Organizer Mel Gasper.
Its not just the environment Sen. Jauch and others are concerned about. They fear G–Tac will take the profits from the mine and leave the citizens with no benefits.
"While Minnesota companies recognize they want to share in the profits that they get from this resource, that they are taking from Northern Minnesota, this company wants to mine this iron ore for free," said Sen. Jauch.
More than 70 years ago, in an effort to protect the Iron Range economy, Minnesota established the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
The IRRRB set up several types of taxes.
"Mining companies don't pay property taxes like homeowners and businesses do. They pay a production tax based on how much they take out of the ground," said Board Commissioner Tony Sertich.
Wisconsin lawmakers tried to use Minnesota as a model for their own legislation.
"It's an extraction fee. You're taking a resource out of our land which will be gone forever," said Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville). Cullen had a hand in writing the democratic version of a mining bill.
However, the legislature didn't support that tax.
That left it up to local jurisdictions to try to protect their own economies.
Ashland county passed ordinances requiring Gogebic Taconite to purchase a $100,000 permit to mine in the county and is requiring the company to maintain a fund of at least $50,000 for county needs created by the mine.
"That ordinance passed with an 18 to 1 majority. That's a big majority for that ordinance. That shows you the feeling here," said Ashland County Board Chair, Pete Russo.
"That ordinance would not allow any mine to open and operate because you can't tell how your business is going to function," said Seitz.
Another concern raised by many in Northwestern Wisconsin is what will happen when the resource is mined out and G–Tac moves on.
Minnesota addressed that issue by establishing a fund that would support economic diversification.
"We wanted to make sure there was a trust fund in place so that there was sustainable funding in place for our communities to do economic development. So this DJJ trust fund was established back in the 1970s to make sure we had the sustainable funds in place," said Sertich.
This debate is far from over.
As the Wisconsin legislature continues its discussion, protestors continue their occupation near the mining site. Meanwhile G–Tac moves ahead with its testing and analysis of the Penokee range.
Iron County will hold a forum to discuss all sides of the issue Thursday, July 25 at 7 p.m. at the Oma Town Hall.
Posted to the web by Kati Anderson.