Ever since the Romanian cyanide disaster of January 2000, there has been a worldwide movement to ban the use of cyanide in mining. Cyanide is an extremely toxic and volatile chemical. A teaspoon of 2% cyanide solution can kill people and much smaller amounts are deadly to fish and wildlife. The Romanian spill occurred when a dam holding mine wastes overflowed and released cyanide and toxic heavy metals into the Tisza River, a major waterway that spans Romania, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia, eventually emptying into the Danube. Thousands of fish washed up dead on the shores of the Danube and threatened the drinking water for tens of thousands of people. One commentator called the spill Europe’s worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl.
Other cyanide disasters have occurred in Colorado, Nevada, South Dakota, Guyana, Australia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. After 51 spills and dam breaches over a decade, Montana voters banned the use of cyanide in mining in 1998; the Czech Republic banned it in 2000. In February 2000, representatives of five Wisconsin environmental groups demanded that the owners of the proposed Crandon mine, at the headwaters of the Wolf River in northeastern Wisconsin, drop its plans to truck up to 200 tons of cyanide per year to the headwaters of the Wolf River. Other potential gold mines in Marathon and Taylor counties would also use cyanide. Environmental, tribal and sportfishing groups are concerned about the transportation of sodium cyanide over Wisconsin roads and railroads as well as spills of cyanide from mine waste ponds. In April of 2001 the Conservation Congress, which represents thousands of Wisconsin sports men and women voted to support the ban on cyanide by a 10 to 1 margin. In November 2001, the Wisconsin Senate passed SB 160, which bans the use of cyanide in mining and SB 271, which requires that cyanide be treated as hazardous waste in mining. Currently, mining waste is exempt from hazardous waste laws, even if the wastes contain deadly cyanide and other toxic chemicals.
One of the most effective ways to kill proposed legislation is for legislators to refuse to schedule hearings or committee votes on bills. This is exactly what the Assembly has done to kill the cyanide bills. BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company and the new owners of the proposed Crandon mine, has been busy convincing Assembly Republicans that there is no need for public discussion of these issues. A spokesperson for BHP’s Nicolet Minerals subsidiary was quoted in a July 31,2001 Green Bay Press Gazette article saying “Even though there have been accidents where trucks slipped off the road, there’s been no environmental release of cyanide from a transportation accident–none.”
However, the record indicates otherwise. The Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin has uncovered at least 23 spills of cyanide in the ten year period ending in 1997. Moreover, BHP Billiton was responsible for 31 spills of hazardous materials at three mining operations in Nevada and Arizona. One of these, at BHP’S copper operation in Arizona, spilled 13,000 lbs. of of cyanide. This is the same company that claims they can safely handle cyanide at Crandon! No wonder they don’t want any public hearings or legislative debate about this record.
The Assembly’s refusal to act on these bills is a serious abuse of public trust. An overturned truck or a mine accident in Wisconsin could release cyanide into the environment, killing fish and wildlife and polluting our water that flows to the Fox River and Green Bay. The proposed Crandon mine could operate without the use of cyanide. In fact, most zinc and copper mines in the U.S. do not use cyanide. But since the company finds this method cheaper, despite the grave risks to the environment, they won’t abandon their plans to use cyanide in their ore processing.
Time in the current legislative session is running out. There are only three weeks of session left. Now is the time for concerned citizens to contact their legislators and insist on votes on the cyanide ban and the bill (SB 271) to end special treatment for mining. Call 1-800-387-0584 toll free to contact your Assmbly Representative. For more background on the cyanide bill, see http://www.alphacdc.com/treaty/cyanide.html
Al Gedicks is a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.
Al Gedicks, Exec. Sec.