Rio Tinto Targets Clean Water Advocates in Wisconsin

by Laura Gauger, Legal Affairs Coordinator, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, October 30, 2013

Back in 2007 the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council (WRPC; Tomahawk, Wisconsin) embarked on a mission to hold Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) accountable for water pollution problems caused by the company’s Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, Wisconsin. FMC, at one time managed by Kennecott Minerals (Salt Lake City, Utah) is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto (London, UK).

This project was never just about us here in Wisconsin … it was about trying to help clean water advocates in the entire Great Lakes region and beyond protect their own waters from adverse impacts linked to sulfide mining operations.

As you know, the mining industry has held up the Flambeau Mine to YOU, the people of MinnesotaMichiganWisconsinAlaska and who knows where else around the world as an example of “environmentally responsible mining” in efforts to convince you to “let them in” and mine in YOUR communities. Our lawsuit was meant to bring out the facts about the serious pollution problems at the Flambeau Mine site and thereby debunk the myth of the “environmentally responsible” Flambeau Mine and give you ammunition to use in your own battles.

We scored a partial victory in 2012, when we took FMC to federal court over violations of the Clean Water Act and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled, among other things, that the company had indeed violated the Act on numerous counts at the Flambeau Mine site.

Unfortunately, however, FMC appealed the decision, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit proceeded to let the mining company “off the hook.” The Court remained silent on whether or not FMC had violated the Clean Water Act. Instead, they ruled that the mining permit issued to FMC by the State of Wisconsin “shielded” the company from prosecution and that we therefore could not enforce the Clean Water Act against FMC (even though the company had indeed violated the Act, as determined by the U.S. District Court).

In the process, no one was held accountable for the fact that the Flambeau Mine has polluted a tributary of the Flambeau River to the point where theWisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has recommended to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the stream be listed as “impaired” for copper and zinc toxicity linked to the mining operation. And absolutely NOTHING has been done about the high levels of toxins (most notably manganese) in the groundwater at the mine site. You see, groundwater pollution at mine sites in Wisconsin has been legalized by the Wisconsin DNR and State Legislature (see NR 182.075, Wisconsin Administrative Code), so we could not argue that point in either state or federal court.

The latest twist is that FMC, owned by one of the wealthiest multinational mining corporations in the world (Rio Tinto), is “going after” WRPCLaura Gauger and their fellow plaintiff (Center for Biological Diversity; Tucson, Arizona) to recover various “costs” the company accrued in the lawsuit … to the tune of $157,000.

Our lawyers are fighting the dollar amount demanded by FMC, but it appears we will be required to pay FMC/Rio Tinto many thousands of dollars.

Stay tuned.



In victory at Crandon, lessons for a new proposal | Al Gedicks and Dave Blouin

Oct. 9, 2013

The end of this month, Oct. 28, marks the 10th anniversary of the historic victory over the controversial Crandon mine project adjacent to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa Reservation.

Veterans of that 28-year (1975-2003) battle against the Crandon metallic sulfide mine will gather on the Mole Lake Reservation on Oct. 26 to commemorate the grass-roots environmental, sportfishing and tribal victory over the world’s largest energy company (Exxon) and the world’s largest mining company (BHP Billiton).

Situated at the headwaters of the Wolf River, the proposed underground shaft mine was one mile upstream from the tribe’s wild rice beds, five miles from the Forest County Potawatomi Reservation, and 40 miles (via the Wolf River) upstream of the Menominee Nation. The mine would have destroyed Mole Lake’s wild rice beds and threatened the tourism industry downstream on the Wolf River.

In the end, the Mole Lake Chippewa and the Forest County Potawatomi tribes purchased and divided the 5,000-acre Crandon mine property for $16.5 million. Mole Lake acquired the Nicolet Minerals Co., and quickly dropped mine permit applications. The land is now managed as a conservation area devoted to sustainable land-management practices, tribal cultural values and tourism suitable to this environmentally sensitive area.

The international mining industry was shocked when a broad multiracial, rural-based grassroots alliance defeated the world’s largest mining corporation. How could such a movement overcome the superior financial resources, and political access to decision-makers in the Wisconsin Legislature, governor’s office and the Department of Natural Resources?

Dale Alberts, president of Nicolet Minerals, a subsidiary of BHP Billliton, acknowledged that “a major problem in the beginning was the company did a poor job communicating to the local people. Environmental groups got out ahead and frightened people.”

But what really frightened people was the prospect of acidic mine waste piles 90 feet deep and covering 355 acres at the headwaters of the pristine Wolf. Native and non-Native groups mistrusted the DNR to defend their rights and found that tribal environmental regulations were stronger than state laws in protecting the Wolf River’s tourism economy.

After the Crandon defeat, the mining industry urgently discussed the need for a “social license to operate” where the mining companies work to win broad social support for their extractive activities. The failure to obtain such a social license raises the political and financial risks of a project and can often lead to the defeat of a mining project by widespread community opposition.

This is exactly what happened at Crandon and what is now taking place in the Bad River watershed where Gogebic Taconite has proposed a mountaintop removal operation to create the largest open pit iron mine in the world upstream from the largest remaining wild rice wetland in the entire Great Lakes basin on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation.

GTac has followed Exxon’s strategy by using its financial and political power with the governor and the Legislature to write its own mining law, severely limiting citizen and tribal participation in the permitting process, and militarizing the mine site by deploying masked security guards with automatic weapons to intimidate the public.

The most recent public opinion survey from the University of Wisconsin-Superior shows that nearly two-thirds of the people in a random poll in Iron and Ashland counties oppose the mine project.

From the perspective of the mining industry’s own standards for a viable mine project, this project is dead in the water.

Al Gedicks of La Crosse is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council. Dave Blouin of Madison is the Mining Committee chair of the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter.


Thursday, March 7th: Tele-Town Hall with Mining Expert Al Gedicks

Wow- our Tele-Town Hall with activist and scholar Al Gedicks was a total success. Stay tuned for more info and be sure to sign up for our upcoming Tele-Town Hall on a special topic. Have a recommendation for a Tele-Town Hall topic or speaker? Email or call (906) 662-9987. Thanks!

Gedicks, Blouin: New Wisconsin iron mining bill will be devastating to the environment

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) should be paying Isthmus contributor Larry Kaufmann for his able job of parroting their misleading talking points on the new mining bill introduced last week by GOP mining cheerleaders. The “new” version of AB 426, the Strip Mine Giveaway Bill (AB 1/SB 1), is essentially the same bill from last session. A new network of more than 80 state, regional and national organizations immediately asked legislators to reject this extreme legislation that guts state mining laws for one company’s destructive proposal.

The legislation will create a streamlined, less protective ferrous (iron) mining regulatory program for what will be the largest open pit iron mine in the world, based on no scientific evidence to justify treating iron mining different than other metallic mining. If Gogebic Taconite (GTac) proceeds with their proposal, Phase 1 alone would be larger than the acknowledged largest taconite (iron) mine in the world, the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine in Hibbing, Minnesota. The taconite ore body here runs 22 miles in length, meaning that the expansion of mining after Phase 1 could result in an even larger mine with additional impacts on rivers, streams, wetlands and groundwater.

Over 900 million tons of wastes and tailings (over 35 years of Phase 1) will be dumped in the wetlands and streams of the Bad River watershed, and could produce the same acid mine drainage that has resulted in fish advisories for mercury and a wild rice dead zone for 100 miles downstream from Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range in the St. Louis River watershed.

The main proponents of the bill, including GTac, WMC and the Wisconsin Mining Association (WMA), have consistently misled legislators with claims that the iron ore in Ashland and Iron counties is more environmentally safe compared to metallic sulfide mining and thus requires separate regulations. They claim that since this is an oxide ore and not a sulfide ore, it can’t produce acid mine drainage and poison local water supplies with dissolved toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead.

Science proves mining proponents are making a false claim. Oxide ores can contain the same sulfide materials (pyrite) that cause acid mine drainage. The Wisconsin Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey have reported that pyrite is associated with the ore and waste rock in 1929 and 2008, respectively. Independent geological studies have confirmed that there are significant sulfides in pyrite in the waste rock adjacent to the ore. The independent geologists estimate that just one cubic kilometer of the waste rock could contain the pyrite equivalent of 10 billion gallons of sulfuric acid of car battery strength.

In other words, GTac’s claim that ferrous mining should be regulated separately is based on an artificial distinction without scientific merit. Legislators who voted for AB 426 were deliberately misled by GTac, WMC and WMA about the safety of taconite mining and cast votes based on unproven mining industry rhetoric over scientific fact.

The biggest lie coming from WMC and mining proponents and repeated by Kaufmann is that the law “doesn’t alter a single water-quality, groundwater or air-quality standard.” The nonpartisan Legislative Council’s memo to legislators on the bill reveals dozens of instances of exemptions or reduced applications of current environmental law for this company’s proposal. Even Wisconsin DNR’s mining administrator, Ann Coakley, stated “there are a lot of changes that could easily be seen as weakening of environmental regulations,” as reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

For example, current mining law (a compromise hammered out with mining companies) already allows a groundwater sacrifice zone where pollution is allowed up to 1,200 feet in all directions from the edge of a waste site or mine. The bill allows DNR to double that boundary to 2,400 feet if the company’s design can’t meet the 1,200-foot standard. The numerical standard for groundwater pollution may not change, but the amount of polluted water would be dramatically increased.

The bill requires the DNR to approve water withdrawals in any amount, from any location, regardless of whether the withdrawal will cause lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, wetlands or wells to go dry. It allows the company to fill lake beds and dump wastes into sensitive wetlands, shorelands and floodplains. It exempts the company from meeting local zoning approvals. It removes the contested case hearing before the permit decision is made, which deprives the public of their right to have the company’s claims and DNR decisions reviewed while under oath.

The bill limits state regulators’ ability to adequately review the proposal by imposing arbitrary time deadlines of 420 days for permit decisions, and places an unreasonable cap on the costs of review. The creation of an artificial deadline for permit decisions alone virtually guarantees that federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers will initiate analysis independent of the state due to the federal trust responsibility to protect resources of Native Americans. The Bad River Band of Ojibwe also has sovereign authority under the Clean Water Act to protect its wild rice from mining pollution. This means that regardless of any new bill passed here, federal permit decisions are unlikely to be made for many years in the future.

There is no debate that this proposal will cause enormous and devastating effects on the air, land and waters of the Bad River watershed of Lake Superior, even if it somehow meets current environmental standards, let alone the gutted regulations in the bill. It is no exaggeration to state that mining proponents are lying to legislators and the public about the impacts of this legislation.

by Al Gedicks and Dave Blouin

Al Gedicks is the Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations. Dave Blouin is the Mining Committee Chair for the Sierra Club – John Muir Chapter and co-founder of the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin. “Citizen” is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.

This article originally appeared in The Daily Page:

Court Rules Flambeau ‘Model Mine’ Violated Clean Water Act

Court Rules Flambeau ‘Model Mine’ Violated Clean Water Act

The Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, WI has a long history of controversy due, in part, to the proximity of the mine to the Flambeau River. This photo was taken in September 1994, when heavy rains   caused flooding at the mine site.


State Officials Urged to ‘Learn from Flambeau’ and Stop Proposed Mega-Mines in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan

A federal court ruled yesterday that Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) violated the Clean Water Act on numerous occasions by allowing pollution from its Flambeau Mine site, near Ladysmith, Wis., to enter the Flambeau River and a nearby tributary known as Stream C.

The lawsuit was filed early last year by the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council (WRPC), the Center for Biological Diversity, and Laura Gauger. The complaint charged that Flambeau Mining Company (a subsidiary of Kennecott Minerals Company / Rio Tinto) was violating the Clean Water Act by discharging stormwater runoff containing pollutants, including toxic metals like copper and zinc, from a detention basin known as a biofilter. Continue reading

How Did Wisconsin Become the Most Politically Divisive Place in America?


May 24, 2012

This past March, standing outside a Shell station in Mellen, Wis., in the state’s far north, Mike Wiggins Jr. told me about a series of dark and premonitory dreams he had two years earlier. “One of them was a very vivid trip around the North Woods and seeing forests bleeding and sludge from a creek emptying into the Bad River,” Wiggins said. “I ended up at a dilapidated northern log home with rotten snowshoes falling off the wall. I stepped out of the lodge, walked through some pine, and I was in a pipeline. There was a big pipe coming in and out of the ground as far as I could see. Continue reading