Can copper mining be done safely? No: Even Wisconsin’s Flambeau mine demonstrates pollution is unavoidableAfter a victory in a recent lawsuit, mining advocates have been pointing to the Flambeau mine in Wisconsin as an example of the ability of the
By: Jane Reyer, Duluth News Tribune
After a victory in a recent lawsuit, mining advocates have been pointing to the Flambeau mine in Wisconsin as an example of the ability of the
copper-mining industry to protect water.
But is the water really unpolluted?
The federal court of appeals did not breach this issue, deciding instead it would be unfair to hold Flambeau to the legal standards because the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had told the company it did not need a permit for its discharge.
The stream is clearly polluted; it contains levels of copper and zinc that exceed the acute toxicity standards for aquatic life and is included on the state’s “impaired waters” list. The district court looked at the evidence and found that the pollution came from Flambeau’s discharge. The court of appeals did not revisit these facts; it simply held that no lawsuit could be brought to enforce the standards.
The district court did praise Flambeau for its concern for the environment, but this is precisely the point: Even mining companies that do all they can to protect the environment cannot avoid polluting water.
Nor is the tributary stream the only water-quality issue at the former mine. The mine pit ends just
140 feet from the Flambeau River, separated by a bedrock “pillar” that is known to be fractured and leaking. Water moving into the Flambeau River through the pillar has a zinc level of more than 300 micrograms per liter. The acute toxicity standard for aquatic life varies according to the hardness of the water, but in the Flambeau River can be as low as 18 micrograms per liter.
The company gets away with this because the Wisconsin DNR treats this portion of the Flambeau as a “mixing zone,” where dilution brings water quality to a safe level. The actual quality of the water within the mixing zone is unknown; the closest monitoring point is
400 feet downstream.
One of the difficulties facing the metals-mining industry has been its inability to predict the quality of the water mining will leave behind. The Flambeau mine is a case in point. The mine permit application predicted the level of manganese in water entering the Flambeau River would be a quarter of what it actually is (between 2,000 and 2,500 micrograms per liter). The Environmental Impact Statement painted an even rosier picture, assuring the public that the highest level of manganese within the backfilled mine pit would be 400 micrograms per liter; the actual level is as high as 40,000 micrograms per liter in one area. The groundwater standard for manganese is 300 micrograms per liter, set to protect drinking water.
According to Flambeau’s permit application, manganese levels are likely to remain high for more than 4,000 years. Wisconsin (and Minnesota) law allows mining companies to pollute the groundwater at mine sites, and Flambeau’s polluted groundwater does not violate the law. But 4,000 years is a long time, and we cannot know how conditions will change over that kind of time frame. This is pollution that has been bequeathed to future generations and most likely to a future civilization that does not have access to our records. Is this really what we want to emulate in Minnesota?
Jane Reyer of Duluth is an environmental contractor and formerly a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation.