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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher January 30, 2012

Wisconsin Democrat says proposed mine would be nearly as big as state's largest inland lake

Would a proposed iron ore mine in Wisconsin be nearly the size of one of the nation’s largest inland lakes?

About an hour into an 11-hour legislative hearing on Jan. 11, 2012, state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton, worried aloud about environmental damage such an operation might cause.

The second-term Assembly member compared the mine to Lake Winnebago, the largest of Wisconsin’s 15,000 inland lakes and one of the largest freshwater inland lakes in the U.S.

"That's a very large lake that's right at the end of the area that I represent,  extremely large lake. And from what I've tried to figure out on the central size of this mine, it could be about two-thirds the size of Lake Winnebago," Bernard Schaber said. "And Lake Winnebago, I encourage you to go there. I’ve ridden my bike around it and it’s a hundred miles-plus to ride your bike around the lake."

Size would help determine whether the mine would help create thousands of jobs, as its supporters contend, as well as what impact it would have on land and water.

So let’s see if Bernard Schaber’s comparison measures up.

Billion-dollar mine

News surfaced in November 2010 that Gogebic Taconite proposed to spend more than $1 billion to develop an open-pit iron ore mine more than 300 miles northwest of Milwaukee in far northern Wisconsin. It would take years to open the mine, if various government approvals are won.

Gogebic Taconite hasn’t made a formal proposal to the state as it waits to see whether Assembly Bill 426, which has generated lobbying activity by 34 organizations, becomes law. The bill, which would relax environmental standards and public participation in the review process for the mine, was approved Jan. 26, 2012 by the Republican-controlled Assembly, with Bernard Schaber and every other Democrat in attendance voting no.

Gogebic president Bill Williams told PolitiFact Wisconsin the company would need up to 5,000 acres to encompass the mine -- roughly four miles long and a half-mile wide -- and facilities such as roads, waste-rock storage and ore processing.

That would be nowhere near two-thirds the size of Lake Winnebago, which has an area of about 138,000 acres.

We sought out a state mine expert and spoke with Ann Coakley, director of the waste and materials management bureau of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She noted Gogebic has spoken about a possibly wider mine -- 1.5 miles wide rather than a half-mile. But even at that, she estimated that the total footprint likely would be 10,000 acres. That, too, is much less than two-thirds the area of Lake Winnebago.

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Lawmaker's evidence

So, does Bernard Schaber have evidence that the mine would be two-thirds as big as the lake?

No and yes.

Legislative aide Eric Koch said his boss believes the space needed for the related facilities, added to the mine itself, would make the total footprint two-thirds the size of the lake. But he acknowledged she has no solid data to support that estimate.  

In a written summary and other documents Bernard Schaber provided to back up her claim, she introduced a different measurement: volume.

She starts with the dimensions of Lake Winnebago, citing a DNR document. If we round the figures Bernard Schaber cites, the lake has an area of nearly 138,000 acres, which is about 6 billion square feet. She multiplies 6 billion square feet by the lake’s average depth of 15.5 feet, for a total of 93 billion cubic feet.

Now to the size of the mine.

Noting that Gogebic Taconite has given varying dimensions of what the size of the mine itself might be, Bernard Schaber used a length of 4.5 miles and a width of three-quarters of a mile. That comes to 3.375 square miles or about 94 million square feet. She multiplies that figure by 1,000 feet, which has been the reported depth of the mine, to come up with a total of 94 billion cubic feet -- a volume even larger than Lake Winnebago’s.

Gogebic Taconite’s Williams told us the mine’s depth would range from 700 to 1,000 feet. But even if we used 700 instead of 1,000 in the equation, we’d get a mine depth of 66 billion cubic feet -- more than two-thirds the volume of Lake Winnebago.

So, when depth is added to length and width, the mine is at or near the size of the lake. But at the hearing Bernard Schaber -- who spoke of biking around the lake -- was clearly referring to area, not volume.

Our rating

Bernard Schaber said "the central size" of a mine proposed for far northern Wisconsin "could be about two-thirds the size of Lake Winnebago." There’s an element of truth in her statement, in terms of volume. But she lacks evidence to back her central claim, which was area.

We rate her statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

Wisconsin Eye, video recording of Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business hearing, Jan. 11, 2012

State Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, written summary of lake and mine dimensions, Jan. 25, 2012

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, "Lake Winnebago"

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, "Wisconsin lakes facts"

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, "Lake facts,"2009

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, "Wisconsin Lakes," 2009

Email interview, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Watershed Management director Pamela Biersach, Jan. 25, 2012

Interview and email interview, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Waste and Materials Management director Ann Coakley, Jan. 25 and 27, 2012

Interview and email interview, state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber aide Eric Koch, Jan. 25 and 27, 2012

Interview, state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, Jan. 25, 2012

Interview and email interview, Gogebic Taconite president Bill Williams, Jan. 25 and 27, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Open-pit mine proposed in Ashland and Iron counties," Nov. 17, 2010

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "Lake Winnebago: Fox-Wolf River Basin," October 2010

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More by Tom Kertscher

Wisconsin Democrat says proposed mine would be nearly as big as state's largest inland lake

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