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By James B. Nelson June 23, 2014

Al Jazeera America: Gogebic iron ore mine would be "just up the hill" from Lake Superior ice caves

Controversy over the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine in far northern Wisconsin plays out in familiar fashion in "Wisconsin’s Mining Standoff," a documentary airing on the Al Jazeera America cable network.

Co-produced by Milwaukee-based 371 Productions and Al Jazeera for the network’s weekly Fault Lines program, the film calls the debate over the proposed mine "a battle for the very soul of the state….pitting those who wish to extract natural resources against those who wish to preserve them."

The piece about the mine was broadcast for the first time June 14, 2014. Al Jazeera America, which launched in 2013, is available in 52 million homes. Fault Lines also airs internationally on the Al Jazeera English cable network, which is not available in the United States. (Al Jazeera doesn’t provide an online link to the segment.)

The film is also being screened throughout Wisconsin by 371 Productions.

The documentary opens with a panorama of hundreds of bundled-up folks tramping across frozen Lake Superior to view scenic ice caves. Those spectacular caves, in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore about 20 miles west of Bayfield, are normally only accessible by kayak or canoe. When the lake froze over the winter for the first time since 2009, the caves received considerable attention, and a record number of visitors.

Standing on the frozen lake, Al Jazeera correspondent Josh Rushing refers to the importance of tourism to northern Wisconsin, discusses the size of the proposed mine and raises a question that’s an important theme in the 25 minute documentary.

"Will all of these tourists want to come here if there’s an iron mine just up the hill?" he asks.

The "just up the hill" impression is reinforced by the editing of the piece. In the opening minute, the film moves back and forth from the ice caves to the Penokee mountain range where the mine would be built.  It shows heavy equipment digging into the earth -- part of initial rock sampling now under way -- and huge trucks rumbling down a snow covered road, then switches back to the frozen lake and the ice caves.

There’s one problem: The mine and the caves are more than an hour apart.

Google maps says it’s about 54 miles from Cornucopia, the town near the caves, to Mellen, the community closest to the proposed mine site. It would take 70 minutes to make the trip, according to Google.

It’s not like this was an out-of-town correspondent losing his bearings in the North Woods.

The script was written by 371 founder Brad Lichtenstein, who is also listed in the credits as director, senior producer and a principal photographer. Milwaukee-based 371 proposed the topic to Fault Lines and did much of the work on the segment. The company produced the 2012 documentary "As Goes Janesville," which included footage of Gov. Scott Walker telling a wealthy supporter he would use a "divide and conquer" strategy against unions.

When we asked the 371 Productions about the "just up the hill" statement, we didn’t receive a response from the company. Instead, we heard from Al Jazeera in New York, which issued a statement that said the film would be edited due to our inquiry.

"While we consider Josh’s statement to be a figure of speech that helps viewers understand the area broadly as a tourist destination, we can also understand that some viewers might take his narration to imply an exact measurement of the distance between him and the mine site," the statement said. "Because of the potential for confusion, we are removing this line of narration."

Impact on the lakeshore

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That aside, could the mine hurt the Apostle Islands lakeshore?

The mine site is some 20 miles inland, but there is plenty of concern from neighbors and the nearby Bad River band of the Lake Superior Chippewa that the project could pollute the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior. But the mouth of the Bad River is miles away from the caves and on the opposite side of the Bayfield peninsula.

The state Department of Natural Resources is responsible for enforcing federal clean water rules. DNR hydrogeologist Larry Lynch, the agency’s top administrator overseeing the mine project, said it’s too early to study any impact that a mine could have on the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior, because the mining company has not provided a specific plan for the project.

For instance, Lynch said, if Gogebic plans a waste water treatment facility, would water be discharged into the river? If so, would the trip downstream dilute that discharge before it reaches the lake?

"It would be a very involved process, obviously," Lynch said of the DNR water quality review.

Gogebic Taconite spokesman Bob Seitz said the company had not studied the potential impact of the mine on tourism. He noted the site itself might draw visitors to what is a remote part of the state.

"I am confident an operating mine (or one under construction) would bring far more people to this area daily to use tourism related businesses than currently visit the immediate area," Seitz said in an email. "Mines also draw tourists to view the project. I would anticipate some kind of overlook like mines in other places have to draw visitors."

Other statements

The Fault Lines piece included several other statements similar to ones we have reviewed.

The documentary states that the project "would start with a 4.5 mile pit and could eventually stretch 22 miles." In another spot, he describes the mine as a "half mile trench that could eventually stretch 22 miles through the wilderness."

That’s similar to a claim from writer and musician Dan Kaufman that the mine "could be extended as long as 21 miles." We rated that Half True. While that is the size of the ore deposit that Gogebic holds the rights to, the first phase calls for a four-mile site to be mined.

Tentative plans call for it to be not a single trench, but two separate pits. Any additional mining would require another permitting process and would be decades away -- and only if the company decides it’s worth the effort. And it would not be a single pit, but a series of excavations, Lynch and the company have said.

The program also mentions the state law written to make it easier for the company to develop the mine. The law allows the company to fill in streams and ponds providing it re-creates the bodies of water elsewhere, the program notes. Kaufman’s statement on that subject was Mostly True because he left out the important point that a remediation plan would have to be included.

Our rating

Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines program about the Gogebic mine states that the proposed mine site is "just up the hill" from the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore caves.

That statement, and the way footage from the caves is interwoven with scenes from the mine site, leaves the unmistakable impression that the mine would be close to the caves.

But it’s more than 50 miles from the caves to the mine site. And Al Jazeera officials pledged to edit out the inaccurate statement after we asked about it.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Al Jazeera America "Fault Lines"

Emails, telephone calls, Jocelyn Austin, director of publicity, Al Jazeera America, June 18, 19, 2014

Press release, 371 Productions, June 9, 2014

371 Productions web site

Emails, Bob Seitz, spokesman, Gogebic Taconite, June 17, 2014

Emails, telephone interview, Larry Lynch, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, June 17, 2014

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Iron County mine proposal pits jobs against the environment," July 2, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Gov. Scott Walker signs iron mining legislation," March 11, 2013

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Nature carves out a spectacular ice sculpture in northern Wisconsin," Jan. 24, 2014

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "In film, Walker talks of ‘divide and conquer’ union strategy," May 10, 2012

The New York Times, "The fight for Wisconsin’s soul," March 29, 2014

Wisconsin State Statutes, 295.605 on iron ore mining

PolitiFact Wisconsin Truth-o-Meter statements on mining

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Gogebic Taconite Potential Mining Project

National Parks Service, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore web page

Google Maps

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More by James B. Nelson

Al Jazeera America: Gogebic iron ore mine would be "just up the hill" from Lake Superior ice caves

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