Minnesota officials tour closed Wisconsin copper mineMinnesota Department of Natural Resources officials tour often-cited Wisconsin copper mine on fact-finding mission.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Minnesota officials who will make key decisions on the future of copper mining in the state toured the closed Flambeau copper mine in Wisconsin this week.
Minnesota commissioners from the state’s Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board toured the closed Flambeau mine near Ladysmith Wednesday with staff from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“We came to see what a closed mine of this sort might look like,” said Tom Landwehr, Minnesota DNR commissioner, in the Wisconsin DNR statement. “This is one of many perspectives we intend to gather as Minnesota moves farther into our own environmental protection processes about non-ferrous mining proposals.”
Wisconsin DNR staff provided a site tour and presented detailed information about the mining project.
“We had a very productive discussion,” said Wisconsin DNR Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney. “We appreciate our neighbors from Minnesota traveling to Wisconsin to talk about the project and are grateful for the deepening partnership between our two states when it comes to environmental protection and wildlife issues.”
Supporters of Minnesota copper mining, including the proposed PolyMet project, which would be Minnesota’s first copper mine, often cite the Flambeau mine in north-central Wisconsin as an example of a mine that can run well, be played out, ultimately “reclaimed’’ and not cause environmental problems.
While environmental groups cite ongoing issues with runoff — including some pollutants in excess of water quality standards — a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in August ruled the company was not in violation of its permit, a legal decision interpreted by mining supporters as an example of a copper mine operating and closing without environmental doom predicted by critics.
But Jamie Saul, a Wisconsin attorney for environmental groups, says the mine still is discharging copper-tainted water into a nearby stream. The stream is the only one in Wisconsin listed as impaired due to acute copper toxicity, Saul said. Saul said the court decision was based on a technicality and did not determine whether pollution was occurring.
“They’re trying to minimize the pollution that’s still coming out. But we’re saying that even if it’s a small stream, it’s important,’’ Saul said. “Even after 15 years they are still having problems, both in surface waters and in groundwater.”
The small Flambeau mine deposit, discovered in 1969, was mined along the Flambeau River between 1993 and 1997, producing 181,000 tons of copper, 334,000 ounces of gold and 3.3 million ounces of silver. Reclamation activities were substantially completed by the end of 1999. Those activities included backfilling the open-pit, which involved blending the stockpiled waste rock with limestone. Agency staff will continue to monitor the site for the next several decades.
While Minnesota officials haven’t announced such trips, it appears they also will be heading to other states to see first-hand copper mines that have left environmental destruction in their wake.
“The Flambeau mine appears to be one that was closed properly and did not leave a pollution legacy, as many copper mines have,” says John Linc Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in the Wisconsin DNR statement. “We will also be looking at projects where states were left to deal with legacy pollution clean ups. We need to do our homework and take lessons from other mining sites.”
In a later statement released Thursday, Stine said: This sentiment was echoed by MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine. "Effective environmental protection has no borders. Our work with the Wisconsin DNR serves as an example of how states can benefit from the sharing of experience and knowledge."