State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, has announced his intention to repeal Wisconsin’s landmark mining moratorium law to make it easier for mining companies to operate metallic sulfide mining operations (gold, copper, zinc) without having to first demonstrate that sulfide mining can be done without polluting the environment.
The law, known as Wisconsin’s “Prove It First” law, was developed to address the problem of acid mine drainage from metallic sulfide mining. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the headwaters of more than 40 percent of the streams in the western United States are contaminated by acid mine drainage. Copper sulfide mines are the largest source of taxpayer liability under the EPA’s Superfund cleanup program.
Passed by overwhelming bipartisan margins (29-3 in the Senate and 91-6 in the Assembly) in 1998, the law requires that before the state can issue a permit for mining of sulfide ore bodies, prospective miners must first provide one example of where a metallic sulfide mine had been safely operated and closed without polluting the environment. To this day, the mining industry has not documented a single proven example.
Now Tiffany claims that the Flambeau metallic sulfide mine, owned by Kennecott/Rio Tinto, which operated in Ladysmith from 1993 to 1997, is the reason why the state no longer needs a sulfide mining moratorium. He cites a 2012 federal court decision in which Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the Flambeau Mining Company violated the Clean Water Act on numerous occasions by polluting “Stream C,” a tributary of the Flambeau River, but nonetheless commended FMC for its “exemplary” reclamation efforts. Under the terms of the moratorium law, Flambeau cannot be used as an example to meet the law because it polluted “Stream C” that feeds the Flambeau River.
Tiffany and his mining industry supporters are misleading the Legislature and the public by asserting that the Flambeau mine is an example of environmentally safe mining. In June 2014 the U.S. EPA listed “Stream C” at the Flambeau mine site as “impaired waters” due to copper and zinc toxicity linked to the Flambeau mine operation. Stream C was the issue in the Clean Water Act lawsuit.
The Flambeau mine also has severely contaminated groundwater. FMC’s own monitoring wells within the backfilled pit show the groundwater contains high levels of manganese, zinc, copper and sulfates — in some cases, hundreds of times higher than drinking water standards. Groundwater and surface water contamination problems at the Flambeau mine confirm the need for keeping Wisconsin’s “Prove It First” law on the books.
The company with the most to gain from repealing the mining moratorium is Aquila Resources, a Canadian exploration company that owns the controversial Back Forty metallic sulfide mine proposal adjacent to the Menominee River that forms the border between Wisconsin and Michigan and flows into Green Bay. The proposed mine threatens pollution of the Menominee River and the desecration of multiple burial sites and mounds within the mine site sacred to the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. Aquila also owns two metallic sulfide deposits in Wisconsin: the Bend deposit in Taylor County and the Reef deposit in Marathon County.
If the mining industry can’t help polluting the water at Flambeau, one of the smallest metallic sulfide mines in the state, there is no reason to expect the clean waters of the state will be protected from acid mine drainage at the far larger projects being considered in Taylor and Marathon counties. This is scientific fact and common sense.
Al Gedicks of La Crosse is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and a plaintiff in the Clean Water Act lawsuit. He is emeritus professor of environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Dave Blouin is the Mining Committee Chair of the Sierra Club – John Muir chapter. Blouin was coordinator of the Mining Moratorium Coalition, that worked to pass the law in 1998.
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