Upper Peninsula pits offer perspective on Wisconsin mine proposal – by Lee Bergquist (Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel – November 5, 2011)

http://www.jsonline.com/

Please note the date: (Nov/2011)

Ishpeming, Mich. – The Empire Mine is big and deep, spanning a mile across and plunging 1,200 feet to its lowest point. Trucks that carry rock from the depths of the iron ore mine are the size of two-story houses and burn 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel a day.

The electric bill from this massive mining complex in the Upper Peninsula is bigger than the Milwaukee Brewers’ 2011 payroll. “It’s all about scale in the iron ore business,” observed Terry S. Reynolds, a historian at Michigan Tech and an expert on the state’s iron ore industry.

As Wisconsin debates a return to iron ore mining for the first time in nearly 30 years, the Empire and adjacent Tilden mines offer a window into how the industry operates today. The high-grade iron ore that drew immigrants to this region in the mid- to late 1800s played out long ago.

“There are probably still people who think we are out here with picks and shovels and mules and wooden carts,” said Dale Hemmila, the manager of corporate affairs in North America for Cliffs Natural Resources, based in Cleveland and the principal owner of the mine.

“But the fact of the matter is, this is a very, very sophisticated operation,” he said. Now, iron ore mines need to be enormous to justify the expense of excavating and processing mountains of low-grade rock.

Empire and Tilden operations employ 1,800 workers and produce about 13 million tons of iron ore a year at full capacity. After separating the waste rock, it takes 3 tons of iron ore to produce 1 ton of ore pellets – the staple of making steel.

“To make a profit, any mine has to be able to handle very large volumes,” said Reynolds, the co-author of “Iron Will: Cleveland-Cliffs and the Mining of Iron Ore, 1847-2006.”

In Wisconsin, Gogebic Taconite has proposed a $1.5 billion mine along state Highway 77 in an undeveloped area that would straddle Iron and Ashland counties.

But in June the company said it was putting those plans on hold until legislators rewrite mining laws that would ease regulations. Environmentalists worry about a rollback in safeguards and fear that Gogebic’s deep pit and processing will harm air and water resources.

Proponents say there would be no weakening of environmental regulations.

If built, Gogebic, too, would be huge.

One wall of the mine would drop nearly 1,000 feet from the top of a forested ridge known as the Penokee Range; the other wall would drop about 700 feet.

The bottom of the mine would narrow to the length of a football field. Miners would follow the iron ore deposits, and over the planned first phase of about 35 years, the pit would run about 4 miles.

The site would also include a processing plant to manufacture iron ore pellets, said Bill Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite, a unit of Cline Group, a privately held coal mining company based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

The company estimates the mine will employ about 700 people.

“It would definitely be a different land use,” said Williams, who previously worked at mines in Spain, Minnesota and Michigan.

Ore is processed

At Empire and Tilden, rock with 35% iron ore is turned into a marble-sized product containing 65% iron ore.

It all starts deep in the pit where rock is drilled, sampled and filled with explosives. Ore deposits have been cataloged in databases, and engineers decide where crews should excavate on any given day.

In a control room, operators use a bank of computers to track and dispatch equipment to ensure a steady flow of ore feeds the plants.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel webisite: http://www.jsonline.com/news/wisconsin/up-pits-offer-perspective-on-wisconsin-mine-proposal-e42rvni-133308968.html

 

 

 

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