Saturday, May 19, 2012

Opinion: Wisconsin mine law needs public process, not "consensus"

By Al Gedicks and Eric Hansen*

If no mining company has been able to meet the standards of Wisconsin’s mining moratorium law, it does not mean the law is flawed and in need of revision. It means the mining industry’s claim of being able to mine safely lacks scientific merit.

Gogebic Taconite may have temporarily abandoned its proposed open pit iron mine at the pristine headwaters of the Bad River, but company spokesman Bob Seitz says the firm still wants Wisconsin’s mining law changed. Efforts are under way to develop a new "consensus" on legislation that failed to pass the Senate in the last session.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation (WWF), has met with Tim Sullivan, president of the Wisconsin Mining Association, to develop a compromise bill. According to Meyer, WWF and the mining association "agree on 90 percent" of the issues.**

Something is wrong with Meyer, Sullivan and other interested parties getting together to work out "consensus" legislation that would allow GTac and other proposed mines to go forward. That process would elevate an unrepresentative group over the broad, thorough civic discussion and scientific investigation that has served this state’s citizens, and its water, so well.

When Wisconsinites last saw this "consensus" approach to mining legislation, it resulted in regulations allowing groundwater contamination beneath and around mine sites. That ill-advised legislation was the result of a 1980s push by mining companies (Exxon, Kennecott and Inland Steel) and the Department of Natural Resources to overturn the previously existing policy of nondegradation of groundwater. Kennecott then obtained a permit for its Flambeau open pit copper and gold mine at Ladysmith in the early 1990s. Kennecott’s own monitoring wells now show the groundwater there is highly polluted with sulfates and various metals.

Wisconsinites thoroughly rejected the lax regulation that that "consensus" developed. In 1998 a broad-based alliance of conservation-minded citizens succeeded in passing Wisconsin’s common sense "show me it is safe first" mining moratorium law. A 29-3 bipartisan vote in the state Senate reflected the depth of support.***

This wise law reflects a high regard for due diligence and reasonable prudence -- but did not ban mining. It simply requires mining companies to prove their proposed mine would not pollute groundwater or surface water where sulfides are present in the ore body or the rock surrounding the ore body.

Sulfides exposed to air and water create acid mine drainage. Exxon could not meet the requirements of the law and withdrew from the controversial Crandon mine project, which threatened the Wolf River, in 1998.

GTac’s managing director, Matt Fifield, denies that the rock layers covering the iron ore deposit near the Bad River contain sulfides. Both the DNR and the U.S. Geological Survey disagree.

The iron mining bill that was proposed late last year, written by GTac, would have exempted the company from the requirements of the mining moratorium law. Any compromise legislation that allows GTac to mine where sulfides are present would threaten both Ashland’s drinking water and the Bad River Chippewa Tribe’s renowned wild rice beds.

One overwhelming message came out of public hearings on the bill written by GTac: The citizens and tribes of Wisconsin are not prepared to trade mining jobs for the long-term contamination of their water.

In addition, the secretive process that produced GTac’s mine bill reconfirmed a broad truth: An informed and assertive public is the watchdog that guarantees the public’s ability to question and block ill-advised industrial schemes.

Insist that your elected state representatives stand up for clean government, local control and an open public process for any mining bill procedure. Urge them to oppose an elite "consensus" decision-making group that includes GTac’s mining lobbyists but leaves the majority of Wisconsin citizens and tribal members out of the process.

* Al Gedicks is a professor of sociology at UW-La Crosse, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations. Eric Hansen is an award-winning outdoor writer, conservation essayist and public radio commentator. This article originally appeared in The CapTimes. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors.

Editor's Notes:

** In a press release from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which recently released a legal analysis of weak laws and lax enforcement of mining laws in the Great Lakes Region (that showed mining laws and enforcement in Wisconsin as somewhat better than in Minnesota, Michigan or Ontario) George Meyer was cited as saying, "'While we may be faring better than our counterparts in Michigan and Minnesota, this study makes clear that Wisconsin has a long way to go before our residents can rest easy in regards to sulfide mining.'" Click here to read this May 10, 2012, NWF press release, "Great Lakes Remain Vulnerable to New Wave of Dangerous Mining, According to New Report."

When Keweenaw Now asked Meyer (during a recent NWF telephone press conference) about that moratorium in the light of sulfide mines now being proposed in Wisconsin, he said, "It is not a moratorium ... it is more of a standard that must be met by the agency before it issues a sulfide mining permit in Wisconsin." The standard, he explained requires that, before permitting a mine, a regulatory agency must find that -- anywhere in North America -- there has been a sulfide mine closed for 10 years without violating environmental laws as well as an existing sulfide mine that has been operating for 10 years without violating such laws. As far as the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, Wis., which Kennecott holds up as an example of a "successful" sulfide mine (now closed), Meyer said there is some contamination coming from it (as the authors of this article state above) but that, while some individuals find it significant, the regulating agency doesn't find it significant.

*** Click here to read the two-page Mining Moratorium Law, titled "1997 WISCONSIN ACT 171."

See also our Jan. 25, 2011, article, "Updated: Lawsuit filed against Kennecott subsidiary for water pollution at Flambeau Mine site."

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