Ten Points to Consider on the Crandon Mine
In 1975, Exxon found one of North America's largest zinc-copper sulfide deposits (with some lead, silver and gold), next to the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation eight miles south of Crandon, Wisconsin. Located at the headwaters of the Wolf River in Forest County, the underground shaft mine would produce ore for about 25 years. After facing strong local opposition, Exxon withdrew in 1986, but returned in 1993 with a new Canadian partner, Rio Algom. Exxon sold its share of the project to Rio Algom in 1998, which formed the Nicolet Minerals Company (NMC) to develop the project. In 2000, Rio Algom/ NMC were taken over by Billiton, a London-based South African mining firm, which then merged with Australian mining giant BHP. Widespread opposition has delayed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permit decision for over a quarter-century - to 2003 at the earliest.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THE AREA?
The mine would disrupt far beyond its surface area of 550 acres. Over its lifetime, the mine would generate an estimated 44 million tons of wastes - the weight of eight Great Pyramids of Egypt. Metallic sulfide mining is very different from most other types of mining. When metallic sulfide wastes have contact with water and air, the potential result is sulfuric acids, and high levels of poisonous heavy metals like mercury, lead, zinc, arsenic, copper and cadmium. The mine would also use toxic chemicals to process the ore, including up to 200 tons of cyanide each year, which would be trucked to the mine site on Wisconsin roadways.
Half of the waste - powdery 'fine tailings' would be mixed with acid-causing pyrite wastes and dumped to fill the mine shafts. The company's own data show that the reflooded mine would be a source of groundwater contamination for the next 200,000 years. The other half of the waste would be dumped into a waste pond, about 90 feet deep and covering 282 acres, that is also a possible source of contamination. At a size of about 282 football fields, it would be the largest toxic waste dump in Wisconsin history.
To control leakage into wells and streams, the company plans to place a cover on and liner under the waste pond. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that tailings ponds are 'regulated...loosely', and that leaks from even the best dumps 'will inevitably occur.' The U.S. Forest Service says that 'there are currently no widely applicable technologies' to prevent acid mine drainage. The Interior Department's Fish & Wildlife Service says the Crandon dump could poison groundwater with acid drainage for up to 9,000 years, yet Billiton plans to monitor it for only 40 years after the mine closes. Future generations would face the threat of the tailings pond leaking, flooding, or collapsing. No U.S. metallic sulfide mine has ever been successfully reclaimed (or returned to a natural state). The 1998 Churchill Mining Moratorium Law sought to force mining companies to show one example of such a mine that has been open for 10 years and closed for 10 years without polluting the environment, but the DNR has so far allowed the firm to loosely interpret this law.
In addition, the half-mile deep mine shafts would drain groundwater supplies, in much the same way that a syringe draws blood from a patient. The wastewater would be constantly pumped out of the shafts, 'drawing down' water levels in a four-square-mile area. If not well-regulated, this 'dewatering' could lower lakes by several feet, and dry up wells and springs. (Creeks affected are Swamp, Pickerel, Hemlock, 12-9, and Hoffman; affected lakes are Little Sand, Duck, Deep Hole, Skunk, Pickerel, Rollingstone, Rice, Ground Hemlock, and Crane.)
HOW WOULD THE MINE AFFECT FISHING?
Exxon's original plan called for dumping 1,000 gallons a minute into trout-rich streams that drain into the nearby Wolf River. The Wolf River is a state Outstanding Resource Water (ORW) - allowing no degrading of its pristine quality - and its lower half is protected as a National Wild and Scenic River. Exxon strongly opposed the ORW status of the Wolf, which is the state's largest whitewater trout stream, supporting brown, brook, and rainbow trout. Trout Unlimited's Wolf River chapter says 'the mine as proposed would be a serious threat to the Wolf River as a trout stream...'. The national Federation of Fly Fishers named the Wolf River 'the number one endangered river' in the U.S.
To avoid strong opposition to dumping mine wastewater into the Wolf, Exxon proposed a 38-mile pipeline to dump it in the Wisconsin River near Rhinelander. After environmental groups filed a lawsuit to block the pipeline, Rio Algom proposed a different plan. It would treat the water flowing into their underground mine and discharge the water to seepage ponds on site where it would filter back into the groundwater. To avoid the problem of large volumes of water flowing into the mine, the company proposes to seal the mine with a concrete grout to reduce the volume of water flowing into the mine. The entire plan is based upon a limited field test which was then projected and used in a computer model. The accuracy of this computer model has been challenged by the DNR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Wisconsin Geological Survey and independent consultants. There are many examples of where grouting has not been effective in the kind of water-rich environment at the Crandon site.
The U.S. Bureau of Mines says that mine wastes have poisoned 12,000 miles of rivers. There are many instances of fish kills, such as the dramatic trout kill on Montana's Clark Fork River. The Wolf River tourist industry would be severely damaged even by the public perception of harm to the resources. The Wolf drains into lakes Poygan, Butte des Morts, and Winnebago, and then into the Fox River and Green Bay. The mine would also require the construction of a 115-kilovolt transmission line to connect with the controversial Duluth-Wausau 345-kilovolt line.
WOULD THE MINE AFFECT NATIVE CULTURES?
The planned mine lies on territory sold by the Chippewa (Ojibwe) Nation to the U.S. in 1842, and directly on a 12-square mile tract of land promised to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa in 1855. Treaties guaranteed Chippewa access to wild rice, fish, and some wild game on ceded lands. The Mole Lake Reservation (formed in 1939) is a prime harvester of wild rice, which would be threatened by any water drawdown. Swamp Creek also flows directly into the reservation's rice beds. Though wild rice is central to the Sokaogon Chippewa culture, one Exxon biologist called it 'those lake weeds.'
The nearby Menominee, Potawatomi, and Stockbridge-Munsee (Mohican) nations would also be affected by the mine pollution and the social upheaval brought by new outsiders. Former DNR Secretary George Meyer admitted that Native Americans 'have a case' in using treaties to prevent damage to natural resources. The Mole Lake and Potawatomi reservations have also strengthened their tribal environmental standards under federal laws.
Tribal judge Fred Ackley says, 'If they go ahead with their mine, our tribe is going to be devastated.' This resolve against 'environmental racism' preserves the Wolf River for Indians and non-Indians alike. Native Americans, sports groups, and environmentalists have joined hands to protect their resources from an outside threat, and have been joined by unionists, students, and others. Since the mid-1990s, many township governments and local citizens along the Wolf River have voiced strong opposition to the project.
WOULD MINING HELP THE ECONOMY?
The economic benefits of mining have been compared to drugs - giving a false high, followed by a terrible crash. This 'boom-and-bust' cycle has ruined local economies from the U.P. to Appalachia. Mining companies promise local jobs, which would enable young people to stay in the area. But most jobs go to highly skilled outside workers. This large influx of miners brings local service costs (such as new sewers and schools), inflation in land and housing prices (especially affecting older residents), and huge social costs if the mine closes or the company decides to withdraw. Six out of the top ten counties with the largest population loss in 1980-90 had gone through mine busts. Future state taxpayers who live nowhere near the mine may have to foot the bill to maintain the waste dump - an estimated average cost of $1.6 million a decade. A dollar amount cannot be put on the loss if our tourism industry is affected by harm to natural resources. A waste spill would cause expensive legal battles.
Supporters say that mines bring in tax revenues. Yet the state mining tax (and mining environmental law) was written full of loopholes, in an effort led by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) and ex-Governor Thompson's Administration Secretary James Klauser, a former Exxon lobbyist. If the Crandon mine makes no profit, there would be no taxes to pay. A market glut has been driving down zinc prices for years. Metallic recycling is an economic and efficient alternative to mining, but most mining companies aren't even talking about it.
WHO ARE BHP BILLITON AND RIO ALGOM?
Billiton is one of the world's largest mining companies with operations in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mozambique, South Africa and Suriname. It is now the world's leading producer of chrome, manganese ores and coal, and also mines nickel, aluminum, and titanium. Royal Dutch/Shell owned Billiton until 1994, when the South African mining giant Gencor took it over. Gencor accounted for 75% of South Africa's mineral production, and benefited from the racist system of apartheid with its repressive labor laws, forced removals, cheap labor and lack of environmental rules. In 1995, the mining industry was reported to be directly responsible for 100% of the most toxic pollutants entering South Africa's waters. Billiton broke off from Gencor in 1997. In 2000, the majority of its assets were South African mines and smelters. When Billiton took over the Crandon project, its senior manager of corporate affairs said, 'We don't like to be where we're not wanted,' but his company's track record indicates otherwise. In 1978, Australian Aboriginal people traveled to Billiton's corporate headquarters to protest the company's bauxite leases on Aurukun reserve land, saying the plans amounted to cultural genocide. After media coverage of the protest, Billiton promised not to mine on Aboriginal land without the consent of the people. Two years later, Billiton reneged on its promise, declaring that granting Aboriginal land rights is 'a very big problem and it is dangerous to the mining industries.' Billiton has also run into local opposition in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, where it has wanted to construct a zinc refinery. The local township already suffers high pollution levels and key reports on hazardous waste disposal and economic impacts have been withheld from the public. Residents were not consulted about the project or informed that they may be forcibly removed to make way for the plant. In both South Africa and neighboring Mozambique, mine workers and metal workers have struck against Billiton. Billiton has purchased a 50% interest in Colombia's El Cerrejon coal mines, the largest coal mine in South America, on the lands of the Wayuu (Guajiro) Native people. The project has disrupted the Wayuus' culture and burial sites, and exposed them to environmental and health hazards.
BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary Co.) is an Australian mining giant based in Melbourne. It is most notorious for its record at the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, where local rivers were destroyed with a milky-white sediment and will not recover for generations. BHP dumped 80,000 tons of waste each day into rivers that had been used by local people for fish, water and transport. BHP has explored for uranium in Australia, and in Canada faces eight charges and a possible $8 million fine for harm to fish habitat in three lakes near the Ekati diamond mine. BHP has been defeated by opposition in the past. It tried to mine metals at Coronation Hill, Australia, but lost its bid when the area was incorporated into Kakadu National Park. It explored for metals near the Crandon mine site, but suspended exploration in the late 1990s after protests by the Mole Lake Chippewa and Town of Nashville. At one point, the company had sued the Town and threatened to seize private property of its zoning committee members.
Rio Algom is best known worldwide for its disastrous Elliot Lake uranium mines in Ontario, which poisoned fish and other aquatic life in the Serpent River. The Canadian government fined it for spreading high-level radioactivity in waterways. A nearby Ojibwa (Chippewa) reservation curtailed its fishing in the river, due to chronic diseases, fetal deaths, and abnormal births. Rio Algom used to be owned by Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ), the British mining giant which operated the Kennecott mine near Ladysmith. RTZ sold its shares in Rio Algom (according to the Canadian industry voice The Northern Miner) due to 'potential liabilities' from the Elliot Lake clean-up, and it could find no single buyer. Dozens of miners - members of the Steelworkers union - died of lung cancer from the dust and radioactivity in Elliot Lake mines. Rio Algom's now-closed Poirier copper-zinc mine in Quebec is one of the province's worst toxic waste dumps, leaking acid mine drainage into nearby streams. Rather than spend $1.2 million to clean up the site, Rio Algom sold the mine for $1 in 1985 and transferred cleanup responsibilities to the new owner. After a succession of owners who failed to clean up the site, Quebec passed a law making the former operators of toxic waste sites responsible for cleanup. Can corporations like Rio Algom or BHP Billiton be trusted to mine in anyone's backyard?WHAT CAN I DO?
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