Beast of Greed

By geary yonker

"As long as those valuable metals are in the ground, we as humans can never rest because the beast of greed and exploitation will be over our heads and over generations who inhabit this part of the country to the end of eternity." —Hilary J. Waukau Sr., Menominee Warrior and Elder Statesman

On this page in past issues, we have asked you to donate some time or money to a worthy cause. This issue, all we ask is that you devote your attention to the long heated struggle over the proposed Crandon Mine in Northeastern Wisconsin.

In 1975 a vein of zinc copper sulfide was discovered near Mole Lake in Northeastern Wisconsin. One mile long, 200 feet wide, and 2500 feet deep, it was one of largest ever discovered in the U.S. Thus began the battle that still rages on today over the proposed Crandon copper sulfide mine.

Various mining corporations have tried to build Crandon Mine, only to be thwarted by an unlikely confederation of Native Americans, environmentalists, and local sportsmen. Although these groups have been at odds in the past over topics such as spear fishing and tribal water rights, this time it is different. This time the Wolf River is being threatened, a river that many hold dear and sacred. The Wolf is known throughout the Great Lakes for its trout fishing, white water, and scenic beauty. The river literally and spiritually runs through the heart of the Menominee Indian Reservation. The proposed Crandon Mine would be constructed upriver from the reservation in the area that contains the head waters.

Sulfide mining is a form of strip mining. The proposed excavation site for the mine would cover about 500 acres. The excavated material would then be mixed with water and chemicals to form a metallic slurry kept in large levied retention ponds. The main chemical used is cyanide. The desired ore then separates from the other material and the waste water is pumped out. What remains is the ore, tons of waste materials, millions of gallons of toxic water, and a 500-acre hole in the ground. The chemical process does neutralize the cyanide and the water is then pumped back into a nearby water body.

Exxon, the company that originally bid to construct the mine, proposed to pump this waste water directly into the area that contains the head waters of the Wolf. When that proposal was met with near violent protests in 1986, they backed off.

Exxon returned with new Canadian partner Rio Algom under the name of Nicolet Mineral Company in 1993. Three years later, the town board of Nashville, WI, made a closed-door agreement with Nicolet Mineral. This agreement allowed the mining company to receive the necessary permits to start building Crandon Mine in exchange for $100,000. After the townspeople learned of this secret deal they elected a new town board in 1997. The new anti-mine board then attempted to rescind on the deal with Nicolet Mineral. After a protracted and expensive legal battle, a U.S. district court in 2001 ruled that the town must honor the agreement. Although Goliath won the first round, the small town has filed for an appeal.

In 1998, Exxon sold its remaining interest in the mine to Rio Algom. The deal was nothing more than a public-relations move, seeing that it was structured so that Exxon would still get a percentage of the future profits if the mine was EVER operational.

Meanwhile, Crandon Mine had become the number-one environmental issue in the state. On Earth Day 1998, then-Governor Tommy Thompson signed The Wisconsin Mining Moratorium, which forces companies that propose building a sulfide mine in Wisconsin to show an example of a successful mine of that same design nationwide. A successful design would have to show that it operated for 10 years without any mishaps, meeting all local environmental standards. It would also have to show that it met all local environmental standards 10 years after its closure.

Seeing how long this struggle over Crandon Mine has gone on, it is inevitable that one day another company will step forward with a design that could meet these standards. However, these standards do not take into account the change in acidity levels in the surrounding water table and cannot prevent the cyanide spills and other catastrophes that have plagued the history of sulfide mining.

The worst disaster happened in Guyana at the Omai Gold Mine in 1995. While the desired ore was different from that of the proposed Crandon Mine, the mining techniques were the same. The excavated materials were mixed with cyanide and placed into large man-made containment ponds. After four smaller spills in the same month, one of the pond's earthen levies collapsed, releasing three million cubic meters of cyanide-laced waste into the nearby Omai River. The toxic wave killed all of the aquatic life in its path, eventually making it to Guyana's largest river, the Essequibo. An 80-kilometer stretch of the Essequibo was declared an "environmental disaster zone." For months, people were not able to fish, irrigate their crops, or drink from the river that was their life blood. The mine was closed temporarily and was reopened in 1996.

In November 2001, the Wisconsin State Senate passed a proposal for a statewide ban on the use of cyanide in mining operations. As of yet the bill has not been ratified by the state General Assembly or Governor Scott McCallum. McCallum, who replaced current House and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, faces a five-way race for governor in Fall 2002. All three Democratic candidates in the race have voiced their support for the cyanide ban.

In April 2002, Rio Algom was acquired by the South African mining company BHP Billiton to form the largest mining conglomerate in the world. BHP Billiton is the current owner to the claim on the vein of zinc copper sulfide that lies outside the city of Crandon.

BHP Billiton has proposed a 40-mile-long pipeline to pump the waste water into the Wisconsin River. Even though the cyanide has been neutralized, the waste water now contains sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid will drastically alter the pH of any body of water into which it is introduced, adversely affecting all the aquatic life and in turn all life forms that depend on that body of water for food and water. Dangerous levels of sulfuric acid and heavy metals would also pollute the ground water surrounding the mine site. Since the mine site is at the head waters of the Wolf River, these toxins would surely find their way into the river and fracture its fragile ecosystem.

In May 2002 the Bush Administration, in a somewhat uncharacteristic move, upheld a claim by the Sokaogon Band of the Mole Lake Reservation that allows them to set their own water-quality standards under the Clean Water Act of 1972. The state of Wisconsin had argued that setting this precedent will lead to tribal regulation of all of the state's waterways. Solicitor General Ted Olson, who represented then Governor Bush in front of the Supreme Court in Bush vs. Gore, argued that the reservation should be given the same regulatory powers as a state. One of the main reasons he cited was the Sokaogon's reliance on Mole Lake for food and fresh water. The Sokaogon (a band of the Menominee Nation) have cultivated rice on Mole Lake for centuries. The name Menominee roughly translates into "rice people". The proposed Crandon Mine site would butt up against the Mole Lake Reservation, and the inevitable change in the surrounding ground water's pH would all but destroy rice farming on Mole Lake.

The struggle against Crandon Mine continues to this day. For more information, check out these hub sites:


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Copyrightę2002 by geary yonker.

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