New owner, same old games threaten the Wolf watershed.
Crandon mine lumbers along
There have been many twists and turns in the Crandon mine saga in the past decade, but the latest chapter may be the strangest yet. A project that a huge multinational mining conglomerate abandoned has now been taken over by a north woods logger with no mining experience and a long history of big political donations.
Gordon Connor’s purchase of the Crandon mine raises enough questions to push the whole debate back to square one. Hanging in the balance is the future of the sensitive Wolf River watershed. It stands vulnerable to the kind of environmental devastation that mining and mining-related accidents have caused in other states and nations.
The broad coalition of outdoor enthusiasts, tribal leaders and environmental groups that have fought the mine throughout the many ownership changes must once again take to the ramparts.
Connor announced last month that his family logging business had purchased the Crandon site and mineral rights from BHP, an Australian mining conglomerate. BHP had pulled the plug on the mine in the wake of a worldwide slump in copper prices and determined opposition from Wisconsin citizens. A proposed public acquisition of the land to preserve the watershed, announced with high hopes, was grounded when the McCallum administration shrunk from serious negotiations.
The sudden revival of the Crandon project is a wakeup call. Wisconsin needs to strengthen its mining laws to better protect our residents and our environment from the kind of damage mining has caused elsewhere. First and foremost, we must pass Assembly Bill 91 to ban cyanide in mining. The mining plan now pending proposes the use of 20 tons of deadly cyanide every month in the headwaters of the Wolf River. Cyanide use in mines has caused environmental catastrophes in the western United States and at mines in other nations.
The ore in the proposed mine contains a high percentage of sulfide minerals. In order to extract the copper, zinc and other metals, the mining operation pulverizes the sulfide rock. While the valuable minerals would be shipped to Canada, the ground up sulfide minerals would be left near the mine in what would become, by far, Wisconsin's largest toxic waste dump. The dump would be an estimated 90 feet high and cover an area larger than 220 football fields.
Throughout the nation, sulfide-mining waste has caused extensive environmental damage from sulfuric acid drainage into rivers, lakes and drinking water supplies. Many rivers in Appalachia and the Rocky Mountains remain lifeless because of acid drainage from mines. In some cases, the toxic drainage continues decades after the mines close and the mining companies have moved elsewhere. The Summitville mine in Colorado had to be shut down after it polluted many miles of trout streams and poisoned water supplies in southern Colorado. Taxpayers in that state will pay as much as $150 million to try to clean up the damage.
The potential for acid drainage pollution from such a large dump would concern us wherever it is located. But the Crandon mine’s location in the headwaters of the Wolf River, one of our state’s most famous and pristine rivers and the Fox River’s largest tributary, makes the threat even greater.
Meanwhile, Connor becomes the sixth owner of the mine in the last five years, adding his company's name to the long list of owners that have had a stake in the Crandon project over the years, including Exxon, Phelps Dodge, Rio Algom, BHP and Billiton. The sale raises basic questions about who owns the mine, how the owners are planning to operate it, and whether or not they have the resources to implement their plans.
Conceding that his expertise is in logging and not mining, Connor says he has spoken to two mining companies about operating the Crandon mine. Which companies? The state’s “bad actor” law requires the Department of Natural Resources to consider a mining company’s past safety and environmental record before granting a permit. Can Connor’s unnamed partner-companies meet this test? We don’t know. Nor do we know if they can demonstrate they have the financial resources to meet their obligation to clean up any environmental damage caused by the mine.
Fortunately, a broad coalition of grassroots groups including anglers, students, Indian tribes, environmentalists, community organizations and labor unions fought to enact the Mining Moratorium Law despite a multimillion dollar lobbying campaign waged by the mining industry to defeat it. The moratorium law prohibits a new sulfide mine unless the mining company can prove that a similar mine has operated for 10 years and remained closed for at least 10 years without causing environmental damage. To date, the mining companies have not been able to offer that proof. It will be important to hold the DNR’s feet to the fire to make sure that the hard won Mining Moratorium Law is properly enforced.
No matter whose name is on the door, one thing is clear. Six owners later, from Exxon to Connor, the Crandon mine remains as much of a threat to the Wolf River watershed as it was the day ore was discovered.
May 14, 2003
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Spencer Black was the representative for the 77th Assembly District in Madison for 26 years. He is the the author of the Stewardship Fund, the Mining Moratorium and the Recycling Law.