Jim and Ruth Brennan thought the days of iron ore mining in northern Wisconsin were over.
So when Gogebic Taconite started drawing up plans about earlier this decade for a massive mine near their home in southern Ashland County, they were surprised, to say the least.
“A three- or four-mile ditch that would actually come within about a mile of our house,” said Jim Brennan.
Jim and Ruth live in the town of Morse, near Mellen and Copper Falls State Park.
Their unique house overlooks Lake Galilee.
“We built an eight-sided home that’s built more like a bunker than a home,” Jim said.
“At our stage of our life, it has so many memories for it. It’s a very quiet and serene place to live,” Ruth added.
From 2011 to 2015, with the support of state Republicans and then-Gov. Scott Walker, Gogebic Taconite explored investing $1.5 billion in an iron ore mine straddling Iron and Ashland counties.
“They would be operating this large ditch at a level four- or five-hundred feet below the bottoms of all our wells around here,” Jim said. “We were concerned about water quality. Actually, alarmed about water quality.”
Plenty of people living near the Brennans, and in northern Wisconsin generally, operate on a simple assumption. Their home is in the country, and they have no agriculture or heavy industry nearby, so their drinking water is probably safe and healthy.
That assumption wasn’t good enough for Kelsey Prihoda, a researcher at the Lake Superior Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She wanted data to establish baseline quality readings in private well water. That data could prove crucial as a point of comparison if major industry ever did move in.
With the help of volunteers like the Brennans, she completed a first-of-its-kind groundwater study in northwestern Wisconsin.
Four years ago, Gogebic Taconite called off the project and closed its Hurley office, blaming federal wetlands regulations. But state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua), who’s now running for Congress, said he still believed the ore body would be mined at some point.
That hints that a groundwater survey is as important as ever.
“People assume that as long as their water tastes okay and it looks okay that it’s okay,” Prihoda said. “[They] aren’t really aware that there are things that we can’t taste or smell or see that could be in there that we do need to be aware of.”
Over the past year and a half, Prihoda’s Northwest Wisconsin Groundwater Monitoring Project has involved more than 450 families across eleven counties, ranging from Douglas to Iron and Price.
Part of Prihoda’s idea centered around her young son.
“It started with his first trip to the dentist, actually,” she said.
Prihoda knew too little fluoride hurts tooth and bone development in kids. What she learned was too much can be harmful.
“I’m a toxicologist by training, and I did not know that,” she said with a laugh.
She decided to make fluoride levels a focus of her sampling, along with iron, manganese, aluminum, arsenic, and lead. Her team distributed test kits at places like the Mercer Public Library.
“People were really excited to participate,” said library director Teresa Schmidt. “It did not take us very long at all to get rid of all 40 kits that were here at the library, because people really wanted to know.”
Energized people like Ruth and Jim Brennan pitched in.
“We publicized it in the local paper, hung fliers, did the word of mouth thing,” Ruth said.
The study’s highlights?
The averages in all eleven counties fell well below the recommended fluoride levels for healthy teeth and bones, meaning families with children should considering fluorinating their water.
Iron was a different story, especially in Iron County,
where water samples included one colored like tea. Several samples in the county exceeded the state’s enforcement standard for iron.
But tests of other metals came back much cleaner across the region.
All of those test results go toward painting a water picture of the area, a picture that didn’t exist before. It’s a picture that could look different in years to come.
“Land use might change, and it’s really important to be able to measure the effect of that land use change on our groundwater quality in the future,” Prihoda said.
The area’s next industrial change may not be a move toward mining, the industry that first concerned the Brennans.
Facing a lawsuit from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Ashland County, Enbridge Energy might reroute a pipeline carrying 540,000 barrels a day of crude oil and natural gas around the reservation and near the Brennan property.
“The Bad River tribe has drawn a very hard line in opposition to it, and so, if they will be looking for a reroute of Line 5, it’ll come right through the Town of Morse, likely, and right around Copper Falls State Park,” Jim said.
Maybe no industrial development will ever come near the Brennans.
But if it does, they, and others in northwest Wisconsin, at least will know how pure their water is after professional testing.
“We don’t to be considered a sacrifice zone for pipelines, for mining, and for other bright ideas,” said Jim. “We need to know where we stand.”
Prihoda is working on getting her results online in a public database and map. Before that, she’ll submit her final report to the Wisconsin DNR for review at the end of the year.