Two-decade-old Crandon Mine controversey continues

Wes Miska

The LU Geology Department hosted two activist speakers who presented their views on the hotly debated issue of mining in Crandon, Wis. for a public panel discussion held in the Wriston auditorium on April 12. The speakers included Kenneth Fish, director of the Menominee Treaty Rights and Mining Impacts Office and John J. Mutter, author of “To Slay a Giant,” a book chronicling grass-roots efforts of Wisconsin citizens during the last decade in their struggle against multibillion dollar global mining corporations to prevent the operation of the Crandon mine.The Crandon mine controversy, as Mutter put it, is “arguably the largest issue the State of Wisconsin has ever had to deal with.” The history of the controversy began in 1975 with Exxon Mineral and Coal Company’s discovery of one of the largest zinc/copper deposits in North America located near the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation eight miles south of Crandon, Wis.

The ore body is a vertical slab about one mile long, 200 feet wide, and extending to a depth of over half a mile. Exxon proposed a 28-year plan to dig an underground mine and extract 55 million tons of rock while recovering about two million tons of zinc-copper, along with recovering residual silver and gold. The potential material value of the mine is estimated to be between $6 and $9 billion.

Aspects of the Crandon mine proposal left much to be desired, especially by residents living near the mining site and also downstream of the Wolf, Fox, and Wisconsin Rivers. Initially, Exxon planned to dispose of treated mine wastewater directly in the Wolf River, which, given its location, would’ve contaminated over 120 miles of the river downstream with heavy metals such as lead, mercury, zinc, arsenic, cadmium and copper. Since the Wolf River is the largest tributary to the Fox River, these metals would have also eventually made their way into Lake Michigan. In April of 1995, the day after American Rivers designated the Wolf River as threatened, Exxon announced plans to construct a 38-mile pipeline to deliver its contaminated water to the Wisconsin River at Hat Rapids near Rhinelander.

Exxon’s plans also included the creation of a 90 feet deep, 355 acre “waste pond” located at the headwaters of the Wolf River with a plastic lining to insure that waste would not leak into groundwater, surrounding lakes, and the Wolf. This pond would contain approximately 22 million tons of waste material, including sulfuric acid, the most notorious of copper mining wastes. No plastic lining has ever been known to prevent leaking of acid at any mining site, and former president of the Crandon Mining Company, Jerry Goodrich, declared that after 140 years the plastic would be completely dissolved.

According to Mudder, Exxon’s pipeline decision in 1995 doubled or tripled the numbers of their opposition around the state. Tribes and environmental organizations pooled their money to combat the Crandon mine, with the Menominee, in particular, leading the effort.

Achievements of the mining opposition include organized and peaceful rallies, close legal and technical monitoring and correction of DNR operations such as the permit application process and environmental impact analyses, providing grass roots political pressure to counter the economic power of enormous global mining corporations, and the formation of the effective educational group, the Wolf Watershed Education Program.

The greatest victory of the mining opposition came in 1998 when former governor Tommy Thompson signed Wisconsin Act 171 (the Mining Moratorium Bill) into law, one year after it had passed the Wisconsin Senate in a vote of 29-3. The Mining Moratorium Bill states that permits may not be issued for the mining of sulfide ore bodies in Wisconsin unless the operation has operated on a similar host rock for at least ten years without evidence of polluting groundwater and surface water. Also, the bill requires that a similar operation must be shown to have closed for at least ten years without polluting surface and ground water. No such mining operation has ever existed.

Kenneth Fish claims that the significance of this battle extends beyond the borders of Wisconsin, and has now received global attention. “The mining company is afraid of us because we might set an example for the rest of the country,” says Fish.

Over the last twenty years, the Crandon operation has passed ownership through a number of global mining giants and undergone several name changes: Exxon Coal and Mineral Company and Rio Algom Limited (Ontario, Canada) formed the Crandon Mining Company (1993); Rio Algom bought out Exxon and renamed the operation to Nicolet Minerals Company (1998); Billiton Plc (London) acquired 100 percent of Rio Algom’s shares in 2001; and currently the merger of Billiton and Broken Hill Properties company (Melbourne, Australia) into BHP-Billiton in 2001.

Fish discussed the duration of time that the Menominee have always considered when making their tribal decisions: “My people think seven generations in advance.” Fish contrasted this conception of time with the age of Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources, the multinational corporations, and the United States. “What is the legacy we will leave?” asked Fish. For sure, a battle: BHP-Billiton continues to pursue a mining permit from the State of Wisconsin, and the Menominee have pledged to oppose it. Current legal suits related to the mining operations will not be finalized for over a decade.