Iron mining in the Penokee Hills, USA

What to expect from an openpit mine and the "Bad River Watershed Destruction Act"? Nothing good. Native tribes and other citizens united, forced the company to cancel the project, and boosted debate around mining in the county


In November 2010, Gogebic Taconite (G-Tac), a subsidiary of The Cline Group, announced plans for a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in the pristine Penokee Mountains in Northern Wisconsin. The open pit mine would sprawl over four miles of privately-held managed forest land [1].  Open pit iron mining has a larger and more destructive impact on the environment than underground mining. The water, air, and land are impacted by drilling, blasting, crushing, and processing activities of this industry [2]. G-Tac’s mine proposal included two pits as deep as 1,000 feet that would produce about 8 million tons of finished taconite annually [3]. Despite the promise of hundreds of mining jobs and promised economic benefits from the company, this project ignited one of the largest environmental battles in decades, with opponents expressing concerns over the effect the mine would have on the Bad River watershed [4].   Many of the opponents included tribes. The planned area of the mine was located directly over the Bad River Watershed through which many streams flow directly into Lake Superior and through the famed wild rice beds on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation [3].   There are two primary concerns the tribe has: they were not consulted or included in any of the decision-making related to the mine proposal, and numerous environmental issues the mine presented.  In February 2013, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe sent a letter to Senator Tom Tiffany expressing their concerns that the Wisconsin State Legislature failed to engage the Tribe in government-to-government consultation and conducted the public hearing process in a way to exclude the voices of Native American citizens [5].  That year, the State Senate had one public hearing in January regarding the Bad River Watershed Destruction Act which was passed in March 2013 and gave innumerable protections to G-Tac. It demolished environmental safeguards related to mining, eliminated public input, reduced revenues to local communities, and rushed the permit review process [6].

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Basic Data
NameIron mining in the Penokee Hills, USA
CountryUnited States of America
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Mineral ore exploration
Specific CommoditiesWater
Iron ore
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsThe proposed 4.5 mile wide mine would have produced 8 million tons of finished taconite annually, rivaling the huge Hibbing Taconite in Minnesota.

With two pits plunging as deep as 1,000 feet, the mine would sprawl over four miles and operate for decades.

A February, 2012 report suggests that over a 35 year life span, the mine would ship 25% more ore than the everything taken out of Gogebic Range mines between 1880 and 1966, with waste rock that could form a hill 500 feet high and 1.5 miles long (the size of Rib Mountain), and tailings that, if stacked evenly over 3,750 acres of land leased by G-Tac from Iron County, would be 47 feet deep [7].

A separate geological study by Lawrence University researchers found that the first phase of the mine alone would produce 2.5 billion pounds of sulfur from pyrite (iron sulfide) in the waste rock [8].

The bulk sampling application describes clear-cutting, removing topsoil, and digging or blasting up to 4,000 tons of rock from 4-5 sites across four acres
Project Area (in hectares)8903.0841
Level of Investment (in USD)1,500,000,000
Type of PopulationRural
Start Date01/11/2010
End Date24/03/2015
Company Names or State EnterprisesGogebic Taconite LLC (GTac) from United States of America - Mining company
Relevant government actorsWisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Chippewa Federation of Tribes, State of Wisconsin
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersSierra Club, Midwest Advocates, Lawrence University
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingIndigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationInvolvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsPotential: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Mine tailing spills
Socio-economic ImpactsPotential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCriminalization of activists
Land demarcation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Project cancelled
Withdrawal of company/investment
Development of AlternativesIn 2013, one of the tribes had established an educational camp near the mining site to draw attention to how the mine would violate its treaty rights, as well as to highlight sustainable alternatives to mining.

Even though it is only a temporary success for the tribes, the mining debate helped create new and surprising alliances between tribal groups and local citizens. Opponents of the mine worked to educate county board members and local citizens about the real human cost of the mine [3].
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.As a result of dedicated efforts of tribes, citizens, and local community groups, the company was forced to conduct further environmental studies and subsequently cancelled the project.

Even though it is only a temporary success for the tribes, the mining debate helped create new and surprising alliances between tribal groups and local citizens. Opponents of the mine worked to educate county board members and local citizens about the real human cost of the mine [3].
Sources and Materials

Citizen Petition for Corrective Action or Withdrawal of NPDES Program Delegation from the State of Wisconsin, October 20, 2015
[click to view]

2013 Wisconsin Act 1 (Bad River Watershed Destruction Act)
[click to view]

2013 Wisconsin Act 81 (Managed Forest Law Exemption Act)
[click to view]


[1] Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. Iron Mining: An Issue of Environmental Justice 10/19/2011
[click to view]

[2] Midwest Environmental Advocates. Mining in the Penokee Hills
[click to view]

[3] Indian Country Today Media Network. A Bad River Win; Gogebic Taconite Putting Wisc. Mine on Hold. Mary Pember 3/3/15
[click to view]

[4] Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. Gogebic dropping plans for massive iron mine. Lee Bergquist 2/27/2015
[click to view]

[5] Bad River Band Letter to Senator Tiffany. February 1, 2013.
[click to view]

[7] Blog - Woods Person. The Potential Impact of Waste Rock and Tailings Volumes in the Proposed Gogebic Open Pit Mine. February 23, 2012.
[click to view]

[6] Sierra Club Wisconsin John Muir Chapter. Issues - Blocking Destructive Mining.
[click to view]

[8] Bjornerud, Knudsen, and Trotter 2012. Geochemical, mineralogical, and structural characterization of the Tyler Formation and Ironwood Iron Formation, Gogebic Range, Wisconsin. Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. July 31, 2012.
[click to view]

[9] Kaufman, Dan 2014. The Fight for Wisconsin's Soul. The New York Times. March 29, 2014.
[click to view]

[10] Wisconsin Public Radio. GTAC Finds More Wetlands Than It Initially Expected in Penokees. Mike Simonson. September 9, 2014.
[click to view]

[11] Wisconsin DNR. Gogebic Taconite, LLC, potential mining project: Preapplication withdrawal and Managed Forest Law (MFL) land. March 27, 2015
[click to view]


Joint Letter from Six Bands of the Anishinaabeg Territory Watersheds and Waters of Lake Superior: Bad River Band of Lake Superior, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior, Lac du Flambeau Band, St. Croix Band, Sokoagon Band, Lac Courte Oreilles Band
[click to view]

Penokee Mining Report. Nature Conservancy
[click to view]

Other Documents

Penokee Mountains Heritage Park map
[click to view]

Penokee Range
[click to view]

Wetlands at mine site
[click to view]

Copper Falls State Park Downstream of proposed mine
[click to view]

Poster- No Penokee Mine
[click to view]

Watersheds impacted by proposed mines
[click to view]

Tribal jurisdiction map in relation to proposed mining site
[click to view]

Citizen protest
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorBernadette Grafton and Paul Mohai, [email protected] and [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update10/08/2016