In 1975, Exxon discovered one of North America's ten largest zinc and copper sulfide mineral deposits here in Wisconsin (Exxon rep. Bill Brooks, quotes in Capital Times, 5/14/76). This proposed underground mine would be located next to the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation in Forest County. Despite sinking millions of dollars into its development, Exxon withdrew the proposal in 1986. Of course, they've since returned and in 1993, Exxon formed a partnership with a Canadian company, Rio Algom, to try to get permits to mine the deposit. This new company, Crandon Mining Company, now proposes to extract 55 million tons of zinc, copper, silver, gold, and lead during a 28-year operation. Along with the Ladysmith mine, the Crandon mine could open a new mining district across Northern Wisconsin, located near the headwaters of a number of our rivers. (Exxon geologist Edwarde May, Mining Congress Journal, 1/77, p. 39)
The ore deposit itself is about a mile long and more than 1/2 mile deep. An estimated 44 million tons of waste rock and powder called "tailings" will be produced. About half of the tailings will be dumped into pits forming what would be Wisconsin's largest toxic waste dump. The other half would be dumped back into the mine itself. All of this is proposed to take place along Swamp Creek, by a tributary of the Wolf River, in an area blessed with extraordinarily clean water and outstanding fish and wildlife. In fact, the Swamp Creek Basin watershed was recently designated an Outstanding National Resource Water, in part due to its importance to the Mole Lake Chippewa as the only source of fresh water for the wild rice crop. (Pioneer Express, 1/22/96) If Exxon's mine contaminates Swamp Creek, you cannot simply relocate the reservation and its famous wild rice.
In addition, the inherent danger of working in a deep-shaft underground mine should be mentioned. Deep shaft mines are notoriously dark and noisy, leading to an increase in accidents in general. Workers are faced with daily exposure over long periods of time, to radioactive radon gas and equipment exhausts due to poor ventilation. (USEPA, "Natural Radioactivity Contamination Problems." 2/78, pp. 44-45) Accidents caused by digging ore and the use of explosives are inevitable and many times fatal. The mining industry in general has long been recognized as one of the most dangerous to work in, and Exxon has a poor record in coal mine safety. (Occupational Safety & Health Law Center, "Fifth Annual Mine Safety Ranking Announced", 9/16/90).
Acid mine drainage into Wolf River watershed
As mentioned earlier, the high sulfur waste tailings represent the greatest long term threat to the Swamp Creek Basin and the Wolf and Wisconsin Rivers. (Beverley A. Reece, "Acid Mine Drainage: Perpetual Pollution ," Clementine, Mineral Policy Center, Winter 1995). Unlike the iron ore mined in Jackson County, the metals that Exxon wants are formed with sulfur and are called metallic sulfides. Exxon will crush and chemically concentrate the ore to remove the metals, leaving behind the fine-grained waste rock. These tailings, when exposed to air and water during and after mining, produce sulfuric acid that further breaks down and releases other poisons such as arsenic, mercury, zinc, copper, lead and mercury. This pollution is called acid mine drainage. (U.S. Forest Service, Acid Mine Drainage in National Forests, 1994) The chemical process that creates acid mine drainage sustains itself and is virtually impossible to stop once begun. (Beverley A. Reece, "Acid Mine Drainage: Perpetual Pollution ," Clementine, Mineral Policy Center, Winter 1995). The U.S. Bureau of Mines estimates that 10,000 miles of U.S. rivers have been contaminated by mine wastes. (U.S. Bureau of Mines) The movie A River Runs Through It had to be filmed at a river different than the one in the novel the movie was based on, because the original Montana river had been poisoned by sulfide mine wastes. (American Geographic Society, 1993). Trout are very susceptible to acid mine drainage (National Geographic magazine, April 96)
Exxon is proposing to isolate this toxic soup forever in ponds that would cover as much as 350 acres (or about the size of 340 football fields), at least 90 feet tall. The water table beneath these ponds is as close as 15 feet down. As proposed, it would be the largest toxic waste dump in Wisconsin history. (Former Public Intervenor Laura Sutherland, "Comments on Exxon/Rio Algom's Notice of Intent," 2/94, p. 2) Although the waste dump will have a liner over the top and one beneath it, it is well known that these liners inevitably leak. Basically, we're talking about a big plastic 'baggie' with no proven track record that must isolate the wastes for centuries. (Beverley A. Reece, "Leaks and Liners 101 ," Clementine, Mineral Policy Center, Summer 1995). The question then, isn't whether it will leak, but how soon will it leak and what will happen when it does? Unfortunately we are facing long-term risks of future contamination. The computer "modeling" (or predictions) done on the liner and tailings only looks ahead 150 years. But the Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service has warned that water pollution from mining wastes could last for 9,000 years. (Janet Smith, US Department of Interior,Green Bay, 11/94)
No mines cleaned up
And if these concerns aren't enough to make us question Exxon's proposal, bear in mind that there are no examples of metallic sulfide mines that have been successfully reclaimed (or returned to a natural state). When the mines have closed and the pumps are shut off, nowhere has the water run pure and clean. This fact was confirmed by a 1995 Wisconsin DNR report asked for by the Natural Resources Board itself. ("An Overview of Mining Waste Management Issues in Wisconsin," DNR Bureau of Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, July 1995.) Despite this amazing fact, the DNR still thinks that current technology is sufficient to protect the state from mining pollution. One way to think of this strange conclusion is to pretend that there's a busy intersection next to a school in your area. No child has ever made it safely across this intersection without being hit by a car. And yet you are told that some untested improvements have been made in the stoplight, and so when you send your child across the intersection, your child will not be hit by a car. In other words, our rivers and lakes are being used as guinea pigs for unproven technologies. Resource companies have made the same safety claims about projects (like the Exxon Valdez) that ended in disaster. (Gregory Palast, "Broken Promises and the Exxon Valdez," Chicago Tribune, 9/21/94)
A second major issue is the huge amount of groundwater that will flow into the mine and cause direct impacts to lakes and streams. Remember that the proposed mine is located directly at the headwaters of the Wolf River, a rich and sensitive watershed with high rainfall and numerous wetlands, springs and streams. During development and mining, Exxon will have to run pumps 24 hours a day to keep the shafts dry and safe for mining. One way to think of this is to imagine pulling the stopper out of the bathtub and then attempting to stop the water from going down the drain. This drawdown effect will pull water out of the aquifer (underground waters) for up to 16 square miles, eventually altering flow to surface wetlands, lakes, streams, and wells. Exxon is currently predicting that they will need to pump out an average of 600 gallons of water per minute, treat it, and send it in a 38-mile pipeline to the Wisconsin River (at Hat Rapids). (Foth & Van Dyke, "Preliminary Engineering Report for Wastewater Treatment Facilities for the Crandon Project," 9/95, p. 17) This current average number is less than 1/2 of what was predicted in 1986 and has not yet been confirmed by other experts. But even if correct, nearly one million gallons per day of water will be diverted from the Wolf River watershed and discharged to the Wisconsin every day of the year for more than 30 years of construction and operations.
Exxon has been trying to prove to the DNR that the lakes and wetlands at the site have little or no connection to groundwater and therefore won't lose much water or worse yet, dry up. It seems likely that these numbers will change. ("Evaluation of Groundwater Modeling at the Crandon Site," Army Corps of Engineers, Vickburg MS, 2/21/96,). While a plan to mitigate (or replace) the water loss to streams and lakes could be created, it could be very difficult to do. Since both the Wolf River and Swamp Creek are designated state Outstanding Resource Waters, Exxon would not be allowed to pollute them as much as it could pollute the Wisconsin River. This whole problem of how to deal with all the water caused one of Exxon's own engineers to remark that, "You couldn't find a more difficult place to mine." (Milwaukee Journal, 3/28/82)
Impacts to streams, lakes, wetlands
Why is the lowering of water levels in lakes and streams important? Most aquatic life such as mussels, wild rice and fish such as the famous trout of the Wolf River - the state's largest whitewater trout stream - are very sensitive to changes in conditions. Short-term changes to water levels can reduce reproduction of many species. Long-term changes can cause sediments and organic pollution to settle in surface waters and ultimately, destroy habitat for all wildlife. The Swamp Creek basin is home to at least seven endangered species and many, many more threatened species. (Associated Press, "Group says mining site home to endangered species," Milwaukee Sentinel, 10/18/94). In 1986, 600 acres of surface waters at the site were projected to be destroyed by construction or impacted by loss of water flow. (Final EIS, 11/86, p. 108) Exxon now predicts that 30 acres of wetlands must be destroyed and no official estimate has yet been made of the number of acres that will suffer from other effects. Believe it or not, Exxon proposes to make up for this by purchasing a muck farm two counties away and turning it into a wetland!
Wisconsin River impacts
Crandon Mining's president, Jerry Goodrich has said repeatedly that ' if we can't protect the Wolf, there will be no Crandon mine.' (Appleton Post-Crescent, 4/24/95) Apparently they have decided that the wastewater from the mine can't meet that standard, because their proposal would dump this waste into the Wisconsin River. Not only could this idea endanger the Wolf River watershed by diverting water to the Wisconsin, but it puts the Wisconsin in danger of receiving wastewater with lead, copper, arsenic, cadmium, zinc and mercury in it. By law, the Wisconsin is less protected than the Wolf; this fact allows Exxon to legally pollute the Wisconsin river and save money on wastewater treatment costs. Exxon itself estimated that it would save $14 million via the use of a 38-mile pipeline and less strict treatment rules. (Foth & Van Dyke, "Preliminary Engineering Report for Wastewater Treatment Facilities for the Crandon Project," 9/95, p. 47) It looks like the mining company wanted us to believe that they were protecting the Wolf River with this proposal, when in fact, two watersheds are now threatened. So far, neither the DNR nor Exxon have released any conclusions about what pollutants will be dumped into the Wisconsin River.
The bottom line is that a sulfide mine doesn't just affect the immediate area around the mine, but can affect a stream or river for many miles downstream, and it's so far been impossible to clean up a leak or spill after it has happened. (J. Moore & S. Luoma, "Mining's Hazardous Waste," Clementine, Mineral Policy Center, Was. DC, Spring 1991) The only guaranteed way to prevent the contamination of the rivers is to keep the mine from opening in the first place.
Walk to proposed Exxon mine site from the Mole Lake Ojibwe Reservation, 1994.
Photo by Cate Gilles