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In Response: Flambeau Mine shows need to preserve prove-it-first law in Wisconsin

1996 News Tribune file photo / Mining was active in the western end of the Flambeau Mine in Ladysmith, Wis., in September 1996.

Hydrogeologist Robert E. Moran issued a report in April regarding water contamination at the Flambeau Mine, a small copper-sulfide mine that operated near Ladysmith, Wis., in the 1990s. The mine is owned by Rio Tinto of London and managed by its Utah-based subsidiary, Flambeau Mining Company.

Laura GaugerMoran's findings clearly are at odds with statements made by Ladysmith City Administrator Al Christianson in his commentary in the News Tribune on Sept. 18, headlined, "Real Flambeau Mine story free of problems." In an effort to advocate for the repeal of Wisconsin's prove-it-first law for new mines, also known as the mining-moratorium law, Christianson characterized the Flambeau Mine as "environmentally sound," and he wrote that "mining-related problems ... didn't happen."

He chided, "Before drawing conclusions about the Flambeau Mine, look to see where the information is from."

About that I agreed. Let me set the record straight by citing Moran's findings (remwater.org) and actions taken by the Environmental Protection Agency at Flambeau.

After reviewing the Flambeau Mining Company's own water quality data, on file with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Moran concluded that, "Flambeau ground and surface water quality is being and has been degraded — despite years of industry public relations statements touting the success of the ... operation. Rio Tinto said in a 2013 public relations release regarding the Flambeau Mine: 'Testing shows conclusively that groundwater quality surrounding the site is as good as it was before mining.' In efforts to encourage development of the other metal-sulfide deposits in northern Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region, the industry approach has been to simply repeat this false statement over and over, assuming that repetition will make it believed. Unfortunately, the (Flambeau Mining Company) data show otherwise."

The company issued a report in December 2015 acknowledging 45 exceedances of groundwater quality standards in 17 different wells at the Flambeau site. Unfortunately, Wisconsin law has legalized groundwater pollution within a mine's boundaries, as is the case in Minnesota, so such violations cannot be prosecuted in court.

Don't let company's aerial photos of the grassed-over Flambeau site fool you. The water there is highly contaminated. Moran concluded the groundwater "would require expensive, active water treatment to be made suitable for most foreseeable uses."

He added, "Historically, most such costs are paid by the taxpayers."

Moran's findings were consistent with those of the Wisconsin DNR and EPA in 2012 when they listed a Flambeau River tributary that crosses a section of the mine site as "impaired" due to high copper and zinc concentrations linked to the Flambeau Mine. The tributary remains impaired to this day, despite numerous attempts at passive water treatment.

As Moran observed, "Since 1998, (the Flambeau Mining Company) has instituted six different work plans to address this soil and water contamination issue. As of fall 2016, copper levels in the Flambeau River tributary still exceed the acute toxicity criterion."

He added, "I know of no metal-sulfide mines anywhere in the world that have met the criteria of Wisconsin's 1998 moratorium on issuance of permits for mining of sulfide ore bodies without degrading the original water quality long-term."

Mind you, the high levels of pollution at Flambeau are from a tiny, state-of-the-art copper-sulfide mine that operated for only four years and without a tailings basin. Compare that to the much larger projects that could be coming down the pike if Wisconsin's mining-moratorium law is repealed.

Moran summed it up best in a January statement: "Wisconsin's prove-it-first law is the most intelligent and pragmatic legislation intended to protect water quality that I have encountered anywhere in the world, and I have been involved in such activities for more than 45 years in many countries."

As Christianson's commentary suggested, "Before drawing conclusions about the Flambeau Mine, look to see where the information is from." That's why I am siding with those who are fighting to preserve Wisconsin's prove-it-first law.

Laura Gauger of Duluth was living in Northwestern Wisconsin in the 1990s when the Flambeau Mine was built near Ladysmith, Wis. In 2007 she co-authored a book about the mine — "The Buzzards Have Landed! The Real Story of the Flambeau Mine" — that's available at the Duluth Public Library and elsewhere. Gauger was also a plaintiff in a 2012 Clean Water Act case against the Flambeau Mine's owner.

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