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Case Study:
Community Involvement at Nicolet Minerals


"The increasingly sophisticated political maneuvering by environmental special interest groups have made permitting a mine in Wisconsin an impossibility."
--From an editorial in North American Mining (a journal of the U.S.
and Canadian mining industry; August/September 1998, p. 3)


Mining Environmental Management
March 2000
V.8 N.2, pp 19-20


By Dale Alberts and Mary Kay Grasmick


People working together can create jobs and protect the environment. While this is a simple enough statement, putting it into practice is not always easy. Working with communities, special interest groups and environmental activists to ensure that a new mining operation protects the environment, and complies with the concerns of stakeholders, is sometimes the biggest challenge that a mining company faces when attempting to permit a new project.

Nicolet Minerals knows this territory well. The US-based company, a subsidiary of Rio Algom Ltd., is about two-thirds of the way through the permitting process of a zinc-copper mine located in northern Wisconsin. Gaining the trust of the communities downstream of the project and of the state's numerous environmental and conservation groups is one of the companies (sic) primary goals as it continues through the permitting process. A permit decision on the project is expected in 2002.

Exxon Coal and Minerals discovered the Crandon orebody in July, 1975. Over the course of nearly 25 years, the project has seen a lot of change; ownership changes, personnel changes and engineering changes. Until recently, the changes in the project have been greeted with doubt and scepticism, and have caused some local residents to view the project with suspicion. Nicolet Minerals knew that it had to bring balance to a project with a tumultuous history. In response, it sought actively to involve the community in the permitting process to help develop solutions that would give the community an opportunity to participate in the design and operation (and eventual closure) of a mine that the company was determined would become a source of pride in the State of Wisconsin.

The permitting process was initiated in the early 1980's by Exxon but, by the late 1980's, Exxon had put the project on hold, citing low metal prices. In 1993, Exxon restarted the Crandon project, this time in joint venture with Rio Algom. In 1998, Rio Algom purchased Exxon's share of the project and assumed 100% ownership of the property.

Rio Algom's timing in purchasing the project baffled some. It announced the purchase just a few days after the so-called 'mining moratorium' was passed by the Wisconsin legislature. This was an attempt to stop mining in Wisconsin, and supporters of the moratorium believed it would kill the Crandon project. However, Nicolet Minerals has proved them wrong.

The mining moratorium calls for a mining company seeking permits in the state to identify a mine that operated for ten years in North America without polluting and to identify another mine that has been closed for ten years without causing any pollution. The law required the common denominator to be that the ore deposit is sulphide bearing and capable of producing acidic runoff. Nicolet Minerals found several examples of mines that met the criteria stated in the law. The mines used to demonstrate compliance with the law were the McLaughlin mine in California, the Sacaton mine in Arizona and the Cullaton Lake mine in the Northwest Territories.

According to Dale Alberts, Nicolet Minerals' director of community relations, "the example mines submitted by the company meet the requirements of the law. The orebodies all share one very important characteristic - sulphide mineralisation capable of producing acidic runoff, and that was what people were most concerned about when the law was written".

Rio Algom's confidence in the Crandon project was fuelled by its faith in its own abilities to operate, close and reclaim a mine without causing environmental harm. The company also knew that it was good (sic) project, and that with the proper engineering and social changes it would be more acceptable to the local people who previously opposed it.

With that mission in mind, Nicolet Minerals embarked on a new approach to the Crandon project. It began a public consultation process designed to gather input from local residents and conservation and environmental groups statewide.

Ideally, any public consultation process starts during exploration as exploration geologists are often the first contact that local residents have with a mining company. That often sets the state for a relationship that must survive for decades. Nicolet Minerals found that when it talked to people who lived near the project; misunderstandings had started during exploratory drilling, and were compounded from that day forward. As part of the public consultation process, the company held a series of public town-hall type meetings which started in the Crandon community and were held as far as 80 km away from the project.

Over the course of the following months, the company met with more than 4,000 individuals, made presentations to more than 60 groups and made at least 40 presentations to legislators and staff. At those meetings, it found that people shared three common concerns about the project: the potential impact to nearby lake levels; a proposed 70 km long mine waste water pipeline to the Wisconsin River; and the long term management of mine tailings.

In seeking to address these concerns, Nicolet Minerals embarked on a new social and technical approach to the project. In some respects it is an approach that is new to many industries. The company acknowledged the opposition to the project and worked with them to find new ways of addressing old concerns. It stopped trying to convince people that a specific engineering technology or method was safe and would protect the environment. Instead, it listened to people and worked with them to incorporate changes that the public felt improved the protection of the environment.

The company's relationship with the communities closest to the project slowly began to improve. In addition to the local efforts, company officials met with conservation and wildlife groups, community service organisations and with educators throughout Wisconsin. Nicolet Minerals staff made themselves available to every group that would meet with them, with the emphasis on listening and understanding. This is the first step of public consultation and, at Rio Algom, it is considered essential to the way that it does business. The public consultation process uncovered the fact that many people had reasonable concerns that had not been addressed, and the company found that it had possible solutions to those concerns. This important process continues and the company has met with over 10,000 people in the past two years.

The first area of concern associated with the underground mine was the potential drawdown of groundwater and its associated impact on surface water bodies and potable wells. There was concern from some people that that (sic) they would one day find their boat dock high and dry.

The company found that it could reduce the water inflow to the mine by at least 50% with a comprehensive pattern of grouting. This ensures that the drawdown to local lakes, streams and to the groundwater table is minimal. In fact, Nicolet Minerals guaranteed in writing to the town of Lincoln, in whose territory the majority of the project is located, that the amount of water pumped from the mine would not exceed 600 g/m. If it exceeds this, the company will cease development and undertake additional grouting to bring the discharge down to the guaranteed amount.

Second, Nicolet Minerals designed a state of the art water treatment facility that will meet or exceed, the strictest discharge standards applicable to any industrial project in Wisconsin. After the water goes through a double-pass reverse osmosis system, it will be discharged to a soil absorption system, which allows the treated water to infiltrate back to the groundwater. For years, those living near the mine had asked why the water that entered the mine could not be returned to the groundwater source from which it came. The solution was taken from the City of Crandon municipal water treatment plant, which has used a soil absorption system for years. This system enabled the elimination of an unpopular mine water discharge pipeline to the Wisconsin River, while improving the quality of the treated discharge water and satisfying the public request to "put the water back where you found it".

The location of the tailings facility was of concern to people living downstream of the project because the tailings contained the sulphide mineral pyrite. Nicolet Minerals added an additional flotation step to the milling process to remove the pyrite, which will then be mixed with cement and used as underground backfill. This ensures the long-term stability of the tailings and alleviates the concern that the pyrite will eventually be released to the environment.

The Sokaogon Chippewa, a Native American community near the mine had been granted 'Treatment as a State' status in 1995 under the Clean Water Act. It gives the tribes the authority to set their own water quality standards. The state of Wisconsin, contending that the state, not tribes, holds authority over submerged lands and navigable water bodies, filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the 1995 designation. In 1999, the state lost its case and has subsequently appealed to a higher court.

In Wisconsin, the Sokaogon Chippewa in Mole Lake set a non-degradation standard on all water resources that are on, or flowing into, their reservation. There are two ways to address the standards. Nicolet Minerals could fight the validity of two sets of standards in court or it could design the project to comply with the more stringent of the two standards. The company chose the latter option.

According to Mr. Alberts, "regardless of whether we agreed with the legality or sensibility of separate and duplicative standards, we knew one thing - fighting in court over this issue would cost time and money, it could also cost us much more - an amicable relationship with our Native American neighbours". Since Rio Algom purchased the project, it has tried to establish a better relationship with the Sokaogon.

While the state regulator continues to argue this issue in court, Nicolet Minerals' course of action was to look at the environmental impacts and design the project to comply with any reasonable application of the Sokaogon water quality standards that exist today, even though the water quality standards proposed by the tribes were narrative and not quantitative in nature. Mr. Alberts noted that "the only way that we felt comfortable with this situation was to comply with the non-degradation standards of the reservation so we have no measurable impact on tribal water quality".

Nicolet Minerals approach to the issue of 'Treatment as a State' is in harmony with its corporate core principles. These principles call for Rio Algom to respect the culture, customs and values of individuals and groups whose livelihoods may be affected by exploration, mining and processing.

Rio Algom president and chief executive officer, Pat James, has stated that the company's commitment to sustainable development requires it to meet economic, environmental and social accountability. According to Mr. James, "if the strength of our words is demonstrated in our actions, we believe it will build trust and credibility with our Native American neighbours".

Mining companies extract resources for others to use but it must be done carefully and thoughtfully and without harming the environment. It is responsible mining. It is modern mining. It is the only way to mine.

[Thanks to Dave Blouin for transcribing the 2nd article--WWEP.]


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