Sulfide mining in the Northwoods: long-term and controversial
Proposed Lynne mining sparks new debate over ongoing issue
Deborah Bedolla, The Lakeland Times
September 14, 2010
It has been more than a year since Tamerlane Ventures, a publicly-traded international mining firm, first expressed interest in exploring a sulfide ore deposit near the town of Lynne.
The Oneida County Mining Oversight Committee has since been considering opening a public bid for leasing mineral rights to allow exploratory studies. The committee’s consideration has been, in the words of chairman Dave Hintz, “slow and deliberate” in the face of the myriad technical, economic and environmental issues the proposal raises.
A well-attended July 24 information session in Lynne brought some of those issues before the public, but it was only the beginning of a process that is likely to become contentious quickly.
“It’s going to be extremely controversial and it’s going to be extremely long term. It’s not going to happen quickly, if at all,” Dan Kuzlik, the UW-Extension professor who facilitated the information session and is serving as liaison for the committee, said.
Hintz underscored the long-term nature of the conversation at a committee meeting last week: “Mining is not going to happen in Oneida County for some time. We’re in the early stages of this process.”
Description and history
The eight million ton ore body in Lynne is found in a forested wetland area with a glacial esker running through the heart of the site and contains 8.7 percent zinc, 1.65 percent lead, 0.64 percent copper, 2.45 ounces per ton (opt) of silver and 0.023 opt of gold.
The deposit was discovered in 1990 in exploratory borings by Noranda Minerals, the mining company that won the county’s 1989 mineral rights lease. It was then estimated at 5.6 million tons.
The Noranda proposal never proceeded beyond exploration because discovery of lakebeds in a wetland area south of the deposit, where processing would occur, rendered regulatory compliance impossible for the company. Lakebeds, defined by the ordinary high water mark, a measure that varies by lake, are state-owned and under special environmental protection.
Tamerlane is the first company to show interest in mining the ore body since the termination of the Noranda project in 1993.
Environmental concerns, then as now, will be abundant, but the global economic downturn has raised base metal prices enough to make mining in Lynne attractive in spite of the regulatory costs the company would incur.
“What has spurred this interest, no doubt, has been the increase in the cost of commodities around the world … Even if all the circumstances were the same, if in fact the price of copper goes up, then it might be worth it, so the cost of the commodities on the world market become very important,” Kuzlik said.
According to Tom Evans, a geologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey (WGNHS), the Lynne ore body is small and does not seem to be of a sufficiently high grade to warrant direct shipping. The sulfides would likely be processed on-site, which would greatly complicate environmental protection.
The debate between mining proponents and opponents has a formidable history.
The biggest struggle in recent memory spanned nine years (1994-2003), and ended when the Sokoagon (Mole Lake) Chippewa and Forest County Potawatomi made the $16.5 million purchase of land, asset, and mineral rights for the site in order to protect it from the grave environmental harm they foresaw. The central concern in that case, as in most sulfide mining, was water contamination.
Metallic sulfides in solution exposed to oxygen will oxidize to form sulfuric acid. In sufficient amounts, this acid may leach harmful elements from surrounding rock which may then contaminate ground and surface water.
This process, known as acid rock drainage (ARD), is an issue with which any sulfide mining operation must contend. Evans said the issue can be managed effectively. “It would be wrong to say that ‘oh, well – sulfide bearing material – therefore it’s a danger to the environment. It’s true to say that it’s a danger to the environment, but it would be wrong to say that it can’t be managed. It can be managed and I think we’ve seen evidence of that, for example, over at the Flambeau deposit,” he said.
The Flambeau deposit near Ladysmith is cited to contrary ends on both sides of the issue. Tamerlane representatives, in their draft proposal to the county and in their presentation to the public in July, pointed to Kennecott Minerals’ mining near Ladysmith as an example of a successful reclamation.
But Al Gedicks of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council (WRPC), says this claim is false. Kennecott Minerals only received a partial reclamation certificate and there are still areas of the site under intensive monitoring. One of those is a loading area in a parking lot where there was spilling of crushed material next to an intermittent stream, which, according to the WRPC, is a source of contaminants and discharge into the Flambeau river.
Gedicks has also documented the DNR failure to report accurately on endangered species in the Flambeau River.
“In their 1990 EIS [environmental impact statement] for the proposed Ladysmith mine, the DNR said there were no threatened or endangered species near the mine site. Yet, an internal DNR memo dated July 5, 1989, revealed that the DNR was withholding information about the likely presence of endangered species in the Flambeau River,” Gedick writes.
The memo from Ronald Nicotera, the director of the State Bureau of Endangered Resources, warns that data is incomplete without an assessment of endangered species, but this memo was ignored.
After this was revealed by an open records request by representatives Frank Boyle and Harvey Stower, construction on the mine was halted pending a new EIS.
“They suppressed information,” Gedick said. “From the very beginning of this process, the mining company … not just Kennecott, but Exxon and Noranda, had been major contributors to political campaigns as well as a very effective lobbying organization with the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Association which represents some of the largest mining equipment companies in Milwaukee and Racine,” Gedick said.
He points also to former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s choice of former Exxon lobbyist James Klauser as his chief assistant as an example of state collusion with mining interests.
“There’s been a long history of cooperation between the state of Wisconsin and the mining industry,” he said. But Gedick said he is not anti-mining, and opposes only mining without adequate regulation. He points out that one route for mining companies to bypass that regulation is for them to deal directly with the town.
“What used to be the decision-making authority of counties through their zoning regulations has now been transferred to a direct relationship between the company and the local community through what is known as the Local Agreement Law, which allows a mining company to negotiate directly with a community and provide financial incentives to the community so that [they] will approve a mining project even before there’s an environmental impact statement issued.” In Gedick’s view, Kennicott’s negotiations with Ladysmith in the 1990s constituted a bribe.
“There is a general consensus among the elites, the people on local county and town boards and in local businesses, that the mine was great and the company did an excellent job of reclamation, and if you tell them that they never got a complete reclamation certificate, they will act surprised,” Gedick said.
But for Evans, “the evidence does not rise to the level of being a legitimate concern and a closer look at claims of environmental impact do not bear them out, he said.
“It is true that there are some citizen groups that are saying ‘Oh no, no, it had this problem and that problem,’ but when you really investigate those things and talk to the experts about them, it just doesn’t pan out … at some point in time, the regulator has to be listened to and the regulator is saying it is not a problem.”
According to Evans of the WGNHS, the DNR is above taking sides. “Just because somebody says something in public – ‘they’re polluting this or they’re contaminating that’ – doesn’t mean it’s true, and you really need to find out what the regulator is saying. Now people say, ‘Well, the DNR could be lying about that.’ I don’t think so. That’s just not the way these things work. The DNR doesn’t take sides, is not a pro-mining or an anti-mining group. It’s there to regulate. The activity of mining is a permissible activity as long as you can follow the regulations and comply with the regulations.”
State mining regulation
Gedick speaks of state collusion with mining companies, but others rally evidence to the contrary. After the failure of the Crandon mine project, Nicolet Minerals said, “the hostile political environment for metallic mining in the Badger state” was the primary reason for the decision to sell to the tribes. And, whether the reasons are actually political or economic instead, the fact is that mining in Wisconsin has recently been so rare that the current administration did not even appoint members to the state mining oversight committee.
The biggest move toward regulation at the state-level in recent history was the passage of the Mining Moratorium Act in 1998. The act was introduced to the Legislature by Rep. Spencer Black, who pointed to activist Roscoe Churchill as the force behind the regulation. The act makes it a requirement of DNR mining permit approval that a company give an example from their mining history of a sulfide operation in the United States or Canada lasting at least 10 years without a formal determination of water pollution and an example of a mine closed for 10 years without a similar determination.
Wisconsin has a reputation for being one of the most environmentally-conscious states when it comes to mining; in their presentation in Lynne this July, Tamerlane representatives called Wisconsin mining regulations “onerous.”
Striving for objectivity
Evans and Kuzlik both said that every proposed mining project is unique and poses its own risks and benefits.
“There’s no doubt that there would be a benefit to the local economy,” Kuzlik said. “The real question is at what kind of trade-off? So, if there were a mining operation in the town of Lynne, would they hire people? Even if they brought in people that were experts, that they didn’t hire locally, those people would live here, and they would buy gasoline, and they would buy food and they would buy a house and they’d pay taxes so, sure, there’d be a benefit but the flip-side is versus what?”
Evans emphasized the need for objectivity from state advisory and regulatory bodies.
“Our purpose is to provide objective information about the process and what the issues are,” Evans said. “It’s not our place to take sides,” he said. “I know that sides develop on these issues quite quickly and I can come and give a very balanced, fair presentation on the issues and I will be cast as pro-mining or anti-mining depending on who you are and what you’re hearing me say because people will just put their own spin on it.”
Evans has become acquainted with the local concerns and says he remains impartial.
“I’ve been, obviously, to the meetings in Rhinelander with the mining oversight committee and there are people who are extremely concerned and think it’s a terrible idea. People like Karl Fate and others. Karl’s not wrong, it’s not a matter of being wrong, it’s just a matter of, he has an opinion, and that’s fine. There are people who say ‘This will be the greatest thing. There will be tremendous economic development,’ and I’m not saying that they’re wrong,” he said.
Fate of Rhinelander wrote a recent letter to the editor to this newspaper saying that, “This is not about exploration or drilling. It is about a mining interest that wants to gain control over public resources lying under complex wetland in western Oneida County.”
He calls the Flambeau reclamation site an underground dump, and said that it is a three-dimensional issue and “you have to look at what is going on under the ground.”
According to Fate, the county mining oversight committee is trying to find ways to promote the mine rather than neutrally investigating the situation.
“Tom Rudolph has been pushing it for a long time,” he said. Alan van Raalte of Little Rice has echoed concerns about the environmental impact. Nonetheless, he does not oppose well-regulated mining.
A long-term prospect
It remains to be seen whether the county committee will even open the site for exploration, let alone drilling, which would require not only county approval, but also DNR approval. Mining would have to comply with Oneida County’s own metallic mining ordinance, as well as state and federal regulations.
It also remains to be seen whether Tamerlane or any other interested parties which emerge throughout the process will remain interested.
“Mining is a very long-term thing and in my opinion anyway, mining companies are very fickle,” Kuzlik said. “Maybe by the time, if the county allows exploration and then if the county along with the state allows mining, maybe the prices of commodities would be back down and the company would say ‘Well, thanks but no thanks.'”
Mining in Oneida County may be a long way off, but should it ever happen, the administration of regulatory bodies will be put to the test.