In her Feb. 10 commentary in the News Tribune, Laura Gauger argued that the Flambeau Mine in Wisconsin is not an example of a successful mining project. Unfortunately, the commentary conveniently omitted several facts.
While a focus should be on Minnesota’s comprehensive, science-based environmental review and permitting processes, it is important to point out some key facts about the Flambeau Mine.
First, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources holds this mine up as an example of a successful operation and successful closure. Plans for closure and reclamation were part of the initial permitting process and were approved by state regulators. The reclaimed site is now home to acres of wetlands, hundreds of species of plants and animals, miles of hiking trails, and five miles of equestrian trails open to the public year-round.
The nearby Flambeau River — which attracts tourists, paddlers, and anglers — was protected at every phase of the project. Long-term monitoring upstream and downstream proves the river is healthy.
To a specific point made in the column, the tributary it referenced, “Stream C,” was listed on the impaired-waters list for elevated zinc and copper. In the listing, the source of the impairment was identified by the DNR as “unknown,” meaning it was not the mine site. Stream C receives a lot of runoff from a nearby highway, and other stormwaters in the area also have elevated zinc and copper levels. Stream C was recently delisted for zinc and may be delisted for copper in the near future. The impairment of Stream C was specifically addressed in a 2012 lawsuit, in which a federal judge rejected the claim of impairment of the aquatic environment in Stream C and the Flambeau River.
Claims in the column of groundwater exceedances at the Flambeau site were simply without merit. Wisconsin law, DNR rules, and the permit are quite clear on standards applied to monitoring wells. It is unambiguous; it is not convoluted. Wisconsin’s groundwater-protection law and the standards applied to mining sites and other industrial sites are straightforward.
Also, the nearby community of Ladysmith strongly supported the Flambeau operation and closure. In the words of longtime City Administrator Al Christianson, Sr., the mine was “well-run environmentally” and “brought economic benefit to the community.”
In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the Wisconsin mining moratorium law was repealed, in part, because of the success of the Flambeau mining operation. Now, Wisconsin, like Minnesota, can invite investment back.
The Feb. 10 column was right about one point. The writer was the main force behind the 2012 lawsuit. Not only were her claims of environmental damage rejected by the court of appeals, she and her organization, the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, were ordered by the court to reimburse Rio Tinto for legal fees related to the lawsuit.
The federal court of appeals decision, along with the lower court’s praise for the company’s demonstrated respect of the environment and local community, showed that the right company doing the right things in compliance with the right standards can produce the materials society needs — and can do so safely and responsibly. In Wisconsin, the state DNR, a local city, and the court of appeals proved it. In Minnesota, the proof is in the permit.
If the U.S. wants electric vehicles and clean energy, we need mining. Minnesota’s world-class deposits contain 95% of our nation’s domestic resource of nickel and 88% of our domestic resource of cobalt. We should not export our jobs and environmental conscience to mines in foreign countries with few protections for workers or the environment. We should mine here, supplying needed materials with protection for workers and the environment.
As companies demonstrate they can meet all state and federal standards, we can lead the nation in providing the critical metals needed for a greener and more sustainable future.
Frank Ongaro of Duluth is executive director of Mining Minnesota (miningminnesota.com), an advocacy group for copper-nickel mining.