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In Response: Stop citing Flambeau as a successful mining project

From the column: "While it’s true ... that the Flambeau Mine received no citations for environmental violations, it’s not because the water there is clean. It’s because Wisconsin’s mining laws are so convoluted and weak."

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

In his Feb. 1 Opinion piece in the News Tribune, Max Motley, co-owner of Taconite Drilling, referred to Minnesota lawmakers who support Sen. Jennifer McEwen’s proposed “prove-it-first” law as “ill-informed.” A review of the evidence he submitted in support of his claim suggested to me that he, and not Sen. McEwen or those who support her proposal, is the one ill-informed.

(Motley’s “Local View” column was headlined, “For some, there could never be enough proof mining is safe.” )

Specifically, Motley tried to pass off Wisconsin’s Flambeau Mine as an example of a copper mine that operated without polluting. I was a plaintiff in a 2012 Clean Water Act lawsuit against the mine, and I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the Flambeau Mine — a peanut in comparison to the much-larger PolyMet and Twin Metals projects — did indeed pollute both groundwater and surface waters.

For example, a tributary of the Flambeau River that crosses a portion of the mine site was added to Wisconsin’s official list of impaired waters in 2012 due to copper toxicity linked to the mine, and it remains impaired to this day.

In addition, groundwater reports submitted by the mine’s owner to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources showed numerous excesses of drinking-water standards in at least 17 different wells at the Flambeau Mine site. I encourage Motley to contact the Wisconsin DNR to get copies of all those reports, like I have over the years.

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I also encourage anyone who is presented with a rosy assessment of the Flambeau Mine to go to my organization’s website, where we’ve posted an easy-to-navigate and fully referenced overview of the Flambeau project.

While it’s true, as Motley stated, that the Flambeau Mine received no citations for environmental violations, it’s not because the water there is clean. It’s because Wisconsin’s mining laws are so convoluted and weak that it’s virtually impossible to hold a polluter accountable for a mess, not even in court. Believe me. I know.

Minnesota’s laws are even worse. Did you know that, if the state of Minnesota moves forward with the PolyMet project, all land within the company’s property boundary (a total of 21,650 acres of water-rich lands in the same watersheds that encompass Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, including 6,650 acres in the Superior National Forest) would become part of a groundwater sacrifice zone where no groundwater standards would be enforced by the state? It’s true. You can read for yourself. The operative regulation is Minn. Rule 7060.0800.

When I asked a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency official about Minn. Rule 7060.0800 during the PolyMet permitting process, he confirmed that, yes, it’s not until the polluted water crosses the company’s property boundary that groundwater quality standards are enforced. He told me, “That’s the way the law works.”

So much for the claim in the Opinion piece that Minnesota has “some of the strictest environmental regulations in the country,” eh?

The facts are on the side of a prove-it-first law. We need one in Minnesota.

Laura Gauger of Duluth is the founder and chair of Deer Tail Scientific (deertailscientific.wordpress.com/), a nonprofit working to educate others about Wisconsin’s Flambeau Mine.

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