Mining Wisconsin

The Flambeau open pit copper mine is viewed in Ladysmith in September 1996. Four years after relaxing the state's iron mining laws, Wisconsin Republicans are pushing to lift a moratorium on copper and gold mining.,


On Friday, Oct. 13, the Wisconsin Assembly Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to reverse Wisconsin’s landmark Churchill Mining Moratorium Law of 1998. This “Prove It First” law is effectively a permitting condition: In order to operate a metallic sulfide mine, a company has to provide evidence that it has the capacity to mine without polluting. There is nothing to prevent a company from applying for a permit, given they meet the requirements.

Twenty years after the bill's passage, no new mines have opened in the state because the industry has yet to provide even one example of a mine that complies with the law. Considering sulfide mining has been singled out by the EPA as the single-most toxic industry in the country, this may not be surprising.

Now a handful of state legislators wants to remove this safeguard that has protected Wisconsin land and water for two decades and instead welcome an industry that either can’t or refuses to meet the standard.

Proponents of the mines are misleading the public and elected officials by framing the Flambeau mine as an environmental success story in attempt to legitimize future mining operations. This metal sulfide mine was located in Rusk County and operated for four years, closing in 1997. The Flambeau Mining Company has made many public statements crediting its environmental practices at the site, asserting, “Testing shows conclusively that groundwater quality surrounding the site is as good as it was before mining.”

These are merely convenient lies. By FMC’s own data, sampling of the wells near the site showed “33 violations of drinking water,” eventually provoking the Department of Natural Resources and subsequently the EPA in 2014 to list the water as impaired for “acute aquatic toxicity” — 17 years post operation. Perhaps most disturbingly, their own computer modeling estimates it will take 2,000 to 4,000 years for sulfate and other minerals polluting the groundwater at the site to return to normal. Independent testing and analysis by geochemist and hydrogeologist Robert Moran found that even 4,000 years may be a gross underestimation.

Thanks to the work of concerned citizens, the company was brought to a federal trial in which FMC was found guilty on 11 counts of violating the Clean Water Act and fined a total of $250. Yes, $250 to a multibillion-dollar company. To this day, FMC has failed to adequately clean up the site and their application for a Certificate of Completion to reclaim the site has yet to be granted by the Wisconsin DNR. The Flambeau mine was the smallest copper mine in the world, yet they were unable to keep the water safe.

New metal sulfide mines are being negotiated near some of the largest fresh water systems — Lake Superior, the Menominee River and St. Louis River to name a few, and these future mines are likely to be much larger than Flambeau.

So how are our legislators attempting to legitimize a bill that would conclusively endanger one of the largest freshwater systems in the world? Jobs, of course. But even here, the “model mine” data isn’t in their favor. Prior to the mine, Rusk County was the poorest county in Wisconsin. After the mine, it ranked second poorest — so mining was probably not the silver-bullet solution FMC alleged four years prior. And yet lawmakers are asking us to believe that future mines will be different. The only thing different about now versus 20 years ago is that now Wisconsin has a legal precedent that achieved its purpose in protecting the ecosystem from the hazards of mining.

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So we must fight once again. If mining companies won’t comply with standards enacted to protect water, we can’t comply with lawmakers who are bent toward for-profit companies over their constituents and commonsense. Twenty years ago, the Prove It First law passed with overwhelming bipartisan margins because politicians knew not supporting the bill was political suicide. Let’s make it clear our stance hasn’t changed. Make ourselves heard, Wisconsin — this one really counts. Attend the hearing, call your legislators — or both.

Liana Bratton is an organic farmer who has been active with the organization Nukewatch, an anti-nuclear watchdog agency based out of Luck, Wisconsin.

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