Gambling with the Wolf River


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20-page Special Section in the Green Bay News-Chronicle

The Crandon Mine could mean economic viability for a long-depressed area. It could also mean environmental ruin for one of the state's most pristine resources.

List of articles:

The nature of things (see below)
From the beginning
A lasting impact
Jobs for an area in need
How dry can they make the mine?
Moratorium law protects Wisconsin's 'liquid gold'
The Crandon mine at a glance
Promises, promises
Nicolet contends Wisconsin is a tough place to mine
A plan to minimize acids
It's not just the water, but the water table, too
Their hearts' home
Rice Lake is priceless to the Chippewa
Court forces state to comply with tribe's water regulations
Moratorium bill proves to be a legal jumble
Rio Algom will do well - if metal prices rise
Menominees are highly skeptical about 'safe' mining
About that other mine ...
Digging into the Badger State's past
The pride of Nashville
Internet users respond to town's cry for help
Despite uproar, Nicolet prevails
The closed mine at Ladysmith gives off acid, but so far it's legal
'Hi' and 'Goodbye'

Introduction: The Nature of Things

By Tom Brooker
News-Chronicle editor

The Wolf River basin has been a gemstone of the Midwest and a retreat for Wisconsin for more than a century. It's a relatively short drive to any one of its hundreds of pristine lakes and streams, to its dense woods, to the whispering rush of the river itself.

The odds are great that you, your neighbor or a co-worker have a get-away home somewhere within its far-flung reaches.

Small wonder. The land of the Wolf is a natural treasure trove of eagles, trout, sturgeon, gurgling springs, white-water rapids, cascades, wildflowers, butterflies, magnificent hardwoods and delicate ferns. Each year, we come there by the thousands as fishermen, tubers, kayakers, canoeists, hunters, bird watchers, snowmobilers, boaters or simple escapees.

Still, our esteem of the Wolf pales in comparison to the reverence given it by its native tribes.

The Menominee Indians, the longest continuous residents of Wisconsin, have plied its waters for at least 8,000 years.

Farther north, the Mole Lake tribe's very existence for centuries depended on the water system's yields of wild rice and fish. The tribe's reservation boundaries were purposely drawn to include Rice Lake, which even today is sacred to them and essential to their culture.

But the Wolf River basin is marked by another characteristic: Just south of Crandon lies the 10th-largest zinc body in the nation, an estimated 55 million tons contained within an area less than 150 feet wide by 4,900 feet in length.

More than 500 acres of land above this lode is owned by Rio Algom Ltd., a huge Canadian mining company. Rio Algom created a Wisconsin subsidiary called Nicolet Minerals. It has but one purpose: extract as much of the ore as possible during the mine's projected 30-year life span.

In the hard-scrabble, northern stretches of the Wolf, life is tough, and high-paying, non-tourist jobs are scarce.

Nicolet Minerals promises those jobs by the hundreds. It also promises local and state taxes in excess of $200 million over the next three decades. Even though all of its prized minerals are destined for foreign markets, it could be an economic godsend to the hard-pressed Northwoods.

It also could be an environmental catastrophe.

No one, not even Nicolet Minerals, questions the fact that the fragile ecosystem of the Wolf could not withstand the acidic runoff that has characterized hardrock mining since its inception. If the acids used to separate minerals from waste rock escape, if just one of its three mammoth holding tanks containing acidic mine tailings leaks, a uniquely beautiful slice of America could be irretrievably lost.

In response to an avalanche of protest, Nicolet Minerals is proposing million-dollar engineering solutions, some of which have never been attempted. Their goals are to contain runoff, to seal wastes, to treat water, to isolate tailings, to monitor the health of surface and ground water, to reclaim the land and make it whole. Nicolet has run computer models and says its high-tech solutions will work. If so, it would be the first deep-rock sulfide mine in history to operate so astonishingly clean.

The decision on the Crandon Mine reaches as far as the waters of the Wolf itself, up to the St. Lawrence seaway and throughout the Great Lakes basin. But it will first hit in our back yard, in the pocketbooks of Crandon residents and in the hopes for their young, in the gravel beds of trout and the wild rice fields of the Mole Lake tribe.

The decision is a huge roll of the dice.

That's why this newspaper has undertaken the largest investigative news series in its history.

Wisconsin needs to know clearly what's at stake, what proposals are being offered, what politics are at play, who will make the decisions and why, how the technology is designed and what those within the shadow of the mine itself feel.

Melinda Naparalla has spent the better part of the last 15 months exploring the issues, summoning the facts, talking to all sides. We have enlisted artwork and photography to supplement her writing and to aid understanding.

Too much is at stake - for the environment and for the Crandon economy - to be armed with anything less than the best information available.

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