| 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
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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