PRINT THIS DOCUMENT

Ban cyanide in Wisconsin mining   WISCONSIN CAMPAIGN TO
  BAN CYANIDE IN MINING

SUMMARY: Water is more precious than copper, zinc or gold � or company profits.
The use of cyanide in mining poses an unreasonable risk to the health of people, wildlife and fish in Wisconsin. The claimed benefits of mining do not outweigh the potential for long-term or permanent environmental damage, especially in the pristine areas of Northern Wisconsin where most potential mine sites are located.

There are alternatives to cyanide. The EPA lists several alternatives to cyanide. In 1999, 16 of 18 leading U.S. zinc mines did not use cyanide. 11 of 15 leading U.S. copper mines did not use cyanide.

Cyanide is an extremely toxic and volatile chemical. A teaspoon of 2% cyanide solution can kill humans and much smaller amounts are deadly to fish and wildlife. Under certain conditions, cyanide can break down to form many compounds with chemicals and metals. Some of these cyanide-related compounds remain toxic and are not regulated or monitored.

The mining industry is not subject to hazardous waste laws that apply to other industries. Unlike industrial users of cyanide that are required to destroy cyanide waste, mining companies are allowed to landfill cyanide waste and to rely on natural degradation to reduce concentrations. Natural degradation relies on sunlight and warm temperatures � unreliable conditions in northern Wisconsin for much of the year.

Cyanide accidents happen regardless of process. Flotation and heap-leach ore processing each use many of the same technologies. More than half of 62 recent accidents in Montana � before voters there restricted the use of cyanide in mining � were caused by liner leaks, waste spills, human error or storm events � problems not specific to heap leaching.

Flotation ore processing has caused environmental degradation. In 1994, the EPA reported that a mine using the froth flotation process, the Colorado Black Cloud Mine consistently exceeded limits for cyanide with discharges that were shown to be toxic to aquatic life.

The mining industry deserves to be treated differently. Metallic mining accounts for more than half of the nation's toxic releases, a recent EPA report says. The Crandon mine alone would use 10 times the cyanide of any other Wisconsin industry. Mining is treated differently in many current environmental laws, such as less-stringent groundwater standards.

The issue is fish and aquatic life. Coffee, lima beans, almonds and road salt may contain cyanide, but it has different properties and is less toxic than the cyanide used in mining. Humans metabolize low levels of cyanide � but fish and aquatic life cannot.

The ban on cyanide has statewide support. The Conservation Congress voted by a 10-to-1 margin to support the ban. More than 20 local governments have passed resolutions in support.

 

 

Ban cyanide in Wisconsin mining   WISCONSIN CAMPAIGN TO
  BAN CYANIDE IN MINING

CYANIDE BAN TALKING POINTS AND RESPONSES TO NICOLET MINERALS COMPANY (NMC)

Water is more precious than copper, zinc or gold � or mining company profits. The use of cyanide in mining poses an unreasonable risk to the health of people, wildlife and fish in Wisconsin. The claimed benefits of mining do not outweigh the potential for long-term or permanent environmental damage, especially in the pristine areas of Northern Wisconsin where most potential mine sites are located.

1.         There are alternatives to cyanide. The EPA lists several alternatives to cyanide. In 1999, 16 of 18 leading U.S. zinc mines and 11 of 15 leading U.S. copper mines did not use cyanide.

EPA lists several alternative chemicals used in zinc and copper mining that serve the same function as sodium cyanide. For zinc mining, they are sulfur dioxide, zinc sulfate, sodium hydrogen sulfide, and for copper mining: zinc hydrosulfate, dichromate, zinc sulfate, and sodium bisulfate. Sodium cyanide is the reagent of choice because it is cheap and effective, despite its toxicity.

2.         Cyanide is an extremely toxic and volatile chemical. Cyanide measured in the small parts per billion range are toxic or cause injury to fish and other aquatic life. Should a tanker spill or a waste dump leak or overflow and fail to contain cyanide-laced mining wastes, the result could be catastrophic. Under certain conditions, cyanide can break down to form compounds with chemicals and metals. But many of these cyanide-related compounds remain toxic and are not regulated or monitored. A teaspoon of 2% cyanide solution can kill humans.

Estimates of cyanide concentrations in waste tailings at Nicolet Minerals Co. (NMC) mine (approx. 14 parts per million) would be much higher than standards for both aquatic life and for drinking water - 20 and 200 parts per billion respectively. If NMC�s wastes were spilled into Swamp Creek, the results could be catastrophic for everyone downstream, including the Wolf River. Even if wastes don�t spill, cyanide-laced wastewater can harm birds and other wildlife. For example, 2700 birds died in 1995 after drinking water contaminated with cyanide from the tailings pond at the Northparkes copper and gold mine in New South Wales, Australia. 1000 migratory birds were killed when they drank cyanide-laced water at an Echo Bay mine in Nevada in 1989 and 1990.

3.         The mining industry is not subject to hazardous waste laws that apply to other industries. Unlike industrial users of cyanide that are required to destroy cyanide waste, mining companies are allowed to landfill cyanide waste and to rely on natural degradation to reduce concentrations. Natural degradation relies on sunlight and warm temperatures � unreliable conditions in northern Wisconsin for much of the year.

Do other companies in Wisconsin use cyanide? Some do, but this is not the whole story. NMC states that cyanide is being shipped to approximately 50 "users" in the state. Only three companies used cyanide in high enough amounts to have to report their wastes to the federal Toxic Release Inventory (TRI, 1999 data). Only three Wisconsin companies had wastes of more than 500 pounds or more for 1999. Of the three, two reported approximately 2500 pounds or less. The largest user in the state reported approx. 48,000 pounds of cyanide wastes.

By comparison, NMC would � at the highest estimated rate of use � dispose of nearly 500,000 pounds per year, or about 10 times the amount of the state�s current largest cyanide user. Moreover, other companies are not allowed to simply landfill cyanide wastes such as in NMC�s plans for the proposed Crandon mine. Other industry using cyanide either ship the wastes to waste handlers to be destroyed, or destroy cyanide at their operations due to strict discharge and land disposal restrictions.

Wisconsin mining companies benefit from the loophole allowing them to landfill its cyanide wastes, unlike other industry. Ironically, NMC demands to be treated like other state industry using cyanide despite laws giving mining special treatment. Other state companies using cyanide do not landfill cyanide wastes as NMC proposes to do in its tailings dump and in the abandoned mine. This is because mining is exempt from hazardous waste laws, even if its wastes contain cyanide. Other state industry is simply not allowed to do the same. Mining also is allowed to use wetlands for waste sites and to pollute groundwater in a much greater amounts than any other industry in the state � more examples of special treatment for mining wastes.

4.         Cyanide accidents happen regardless of process. Flotation and heap-leach ore processing each use many of the same technologies. More than half of 62 recent accidents in Montana � before voters there restricted the use of cyanide in mining � were caused by liner leaks, waste spills, human error or storm events � problems common to all forms of mining.

NMC is trying to isolate itself from the mining industry�s horrible track record with cyanide use. Hardrock mining, whether for gold or for zinc, utilizes many of the same technologies. A review of more than sixty cyanide releases in just one western state, Montana, from 1982 to 1998 reveals that more than half were caused by liner system leaks, waste spills or overflows, human error or accidents, or storm events. These problems are not specific to heap-leach mining only; they consist of technology or situations found in common with Nicolet Minerals Crandon proposal.

Waste dump and liner failures have taken place at mines around the world in recent years include a 1998 pipeline rupture that spilled more than 14,000 lbs. of sulfuric acid at an Arizona mine run by one of NMC�s owners, BHP. BHP operates the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea where since 1984 it has discharged 80,000 tons of untreated mine wastes directly into the Ok Tedi River daily. BHP now admits it wishes it was not involved with the Ok Tedi disaster. Another parent of NMC, Billiton, reported several spills at other mines it owns last year. Others include:

Transportation of Cyanide Could Lead to Accidents. For instance, on April 5, 2001, a truck carrying cyanide went off the road and crashed in South Dakota. Authorities said they were lucky the truck crashed into a snowbank, which cushioned the blow and prevented release of the cyanide. A May 1998 truck accident delivering cyanide to a mine in Kyrgyzstan overturned into the Barskoon River. Four people, as well as livestock and fish, were reportedly killed as a result of the spill. NMC is not responsible for accidents should cyanide be spilled while being trucked to the mine site.

5.         Flotation ore processing has caused environmental degradation. Copper and zinc mines using flotation are not immune to accidents and problems with processing chemicals and wastes (see #4 above). The mining industry has also claimed that no mine using flotation has caused environmental problems. This assertion is false.

One example is Asarco's Black Cloud mine in Colorado. It was a zinc/lead mine that closed in 1999 and used cyanide froth flotation for processing ores just as NMC proposes for Crandon. In 1994, the EPA reported that the Black Cloud mine, "�consistently exceeded discharge limitations for total suspended solids, cyanide, zinc, and manganese," and that the discharge was shown to be toxic to aquatic life. Permit records show that Black Cloud continued to discharge cyanide above permitted levels. Black Cloud mine failed seven more quarterly monitoring tests for cyanide in the mid-1990�s.

In 1999, only two of eighteen leading zinc mines nationwide reported cyanide in mine wastes. Of those two, the Black Cloud, mine reported permit violations for cyanide. Of the two, Cominco�s Red Dog zinc mine in Alaska began using cyanide that year. In May and June of 2000, the Red Dog mine exceeded discharge limits for cyanide.

NMC says that froth flotation has been safely used for 70 years. There is simply no evidence to support this claim. There is no 70-year history of safe cyanide use in U.S. flotation mining. Until 1976, there were no uniform federal regulations for the industry�s wastes and discharges, nor were mining wastes routinely monitored for safety.

6.         The mining industry deserves to be treated differently. Metallic mining accounts for more than half of the nation's toxic releases, a recent EPA report says. And mining is treated differently in many current environmental laws, such as less-stringent groundwater standards.

It is common for legislatures to target regulations and to restrict or prohibit certain activities related to a broader problem. Courts have repeatedly upheld such regulations. NMC has threatened to sue the state if it enacts a ban on the use of cyanide in mining, but such an equal protection challenge has little chance of success.

Mining is treated differently already. It is regulated under its own chapter of the statutes (Ch. 293) that give it special treatment. For example, mining in Wisconsin is exempted from Ch. NR 103 wetland restrictions; mining also is exempt from the state�s groundwater laws. Instead, less stringent groundwater laws were crafted only for the mining industry.

Mining is different than other industries. It takes place in the natural environment. For instance, the Crandon mine is in the middle of wetlands and is surrounded by lakes and streams that flow into one of the state�s most treasured resources, the Wolf River � which flows into Lakes Poygan, Butte des Morts and Winnebago.

Mining deserves to be targeted. An April 2001 report by the federal EPA said metallic mining is responsible for more than half the releases of toxic substances ("materials that cause death, disease, or birth defects in organisms that ingest or absorb them") into the environment. NMC�s proposal would use up to ten times as much cyanide as any other single company in WI. Mining wastes in Wisconsin are exempt from federal hazardous waste laws � even if the wastes contain cyanide.

At least one mining company is drilling for gold in Wisconsin. Royal Standard Minerals is interested in using cyanide for ore processing should it obtain permits to mine the Bend deposit in Taylor County in the Chequamegon/Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin.

7.         The issue is fish and aquatic life. Coffee, lima beans, almonds and road salt may contain cyanide, but it has different properties and is less toxic than the cyanide used in mining. Humans metabolize low levels of cyanide � but fish, the aquatic life they depend on, and other wildlife cannot.

Mining companies say that cyanide degrades naturally in harmless substances. NMC expects natural degradation of sodium cyanide in its mine wastes to reduce concentrations. This process relies on sunlight and warm temperatures � conditions rarely seen in northern Wisconsin for much of the year. Even if sodium cyanide breaks down, it forms other metal-cyanide compounds that are just as dangerous and that are not monitored for and are not regulated. Mining companies say cyanide is in coffee and other foods, implying that this somehow makes mine wastes safe.

Fish don�t drink coffee. People can easily metabolize the form of cyanide found in some foods. However, much smaller amounts are toxic to wildlife and especially to fish and other aquatic life. The cyanide compounds found naturally in some foods (lima beans, coffee, sorghum, others) are not the more toxic sodium cyanide. The minute amounts of cyanide in coffee cannot be compared to hundreds of thousands of pounds of sodium cyanide used at mine sites.

NMC states that iron cyanide for road salt is "stable and non-toxic" and that the wastes to be dumped into the abandoned mine will contain this form of cyanide. Iron cyanide � a different form of cyanide than used in mining � is sometimes used as an anti-caking agent in road salt. Due to the negative affects of its usage, such as damage to bridges and toxicity to aquatic life from salts and cyanide, most states are experimenting with alternatives to road salt. Last year, the Canadian equivalent of our EPA, Environment Canada, determined that road salts containing iron cyanide were in fact toxic and harming fish and other aquatic life.

Studies show that some of the sodium cyanide used at the Crandon proposal will be changed to iron cyanide that will be disposed of in the mine. First, modeling shows that wastes in the mine will eventually mix with groundwater and can ultimately be discharged to surface waters. Second, iron cyanide is not the benign substance NMC wants it to be. Iron cyanide can break down in sunlight or in acid conditions and change into the most toxic form, free cyanide. Third, iron cyanide is not the only from of cyanide that will be present in mine wastes dumped underground. Other more soluble and unregulated forms will be present as well.

NMC would landfill cyanide-laced wastes at the mine site. The concentration of cyanide in the wastes to be dumped above ground in the tailings dump will be high enough to cause environmental damage if the waste dump leaks; is overtopped or overflows; is breached; or if birds or other wildlife drink from the pond that would exist on top. The cyanide concentrations in the waste dump will be more than one thousand times as high as what is projected to be dumped into the abandoned mine.

8.         The ban on cyanide has strong statewide support. The Conservation Congress voted by a 10-to-1 margin to support the ban. More than 45 Local governments, Counties, Tribes, environmental and conservation organizations have passed resolutions in support of SB 160/AB 95. They include the counties of Rusk (site of the Ladysmith mine) and Langlade (downstream from the Crandon site), the cities of New London, Appleton, and Milwaukee, and numerous townships along the Wolf River and Lake Winnebago.

For more information on the Wisconsin Campaign to Ban Cyanide in Mining, please log on to: http://treaty.indigneousnative.org/cyanide.html or by mail at P.O. Box 14382, Madison, WI 53714. Hotline (800) 445-8615

Midwest Treay Network content page