MAC: Mines and Communities

Principles Guiding the Potential Wolf River Headwaters Protection Purchase

Published by MAC on 2002-06-04

Principles Guiding the Potential Wolf River Headwaters Protection Purchase

For more than a quarter-century, environmentalists, conservation groups and American Indian tribes have been fighting proposals by various mining companies to open the Crandon zinc and copper mine at the headwaters of the Wolf River, next to the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation. The groups, along with the majority of the people of Wisconsin, feel that the temporary benefits of a mining "boom" are not worth the risk to our northern tourism industry that is dependent on clean water, or the damage to the local economy from a mining "bust."

The Crandon mine risks groundwater drawdown and the resultant destruction of wetlands and ancient wild rice beds, risks pollution from acidic and toxic wastes that will persist for eons, and risks the destruction of the beauty of the headwaters of a federal Wild and Scenic River. The Crandon mine is too big a risk--either for the people of Wisconsin or for the Nicolet Minerals Company (NMC).

The broad-based alliance to protect the Wolf River headwaters has consistently made two demands of BHP Billiton (the owner of NMC.). Numerous communications to BHP Billiton's London office have asked that Crandon mine permit applications be withdrawn, and that the company open a dialogue with state, tribal, and local governments to negotiate a turnover of the site to the people of Wisconsin. We reiterate this position here and add that we strongly believe that insurmountable technical issues combined with recent legal decisions make it clear that attempts to gain state and federal permits for the Crandon mine are now certain to fail. The current low metals market and falling company profits have recently forced BHP Billiton to cut back drastically on metallic mining projects

Wisconsin faces an extraordinary opportunity to permanently end this controversy, in an inclusive fashion that guarantees the natural and cultural preservation of the approximately 5000-acre Crandon mine properties. Environmental, tribal and conservation leaders propose that the State of Wisconsin, in partnership with other governments and private interests, acquire the proposed mine site in the towns of Nashville and Lincoln (Forest County).

If a buy-out of the mine site and mineral rights is to occur, certain principles must be specified, and certain conditions met. Ultimately, any possible purchase requires a guarantee that no mineral extraction will ever take place at the site, that critical stakeholders are not excluded from the process and projected outcome, that the purchase price is based on a realistic valuation of the site, and that the site be managed sustainably and inclusively for natural and cultural preservation.

1. Guarantee a permanent and inclusive solution that rules out the future resurrection of the Crandon mine proposal. It is tempting to suggest that NMC do what previous owners of the mine site have done - to simply give up and go away. However, our experience is that this or another company will eventually return and apply for a permit (as Exxon returned in 1992 after a six-year withdrawal). Frankly, we do not want to repeat history and fight this battle again. We want the threat of mining at this site to permanently end, and the only way to end the threat is to take the site out of the hands of mining companies.

During any buy-out process, whether or not the permit processes are suspended, we will continue to oppose mine permits. Without a denial or full withdrawal of state or federal permits, we will assume that permit applications are still active. We will support pending mining reform legislation even if the Crandon site is acquired.

2. Safeguard the natural and cultural resources of the site into the future, with control of the mine site by an integrated board of state, local and tribal governments, and private organizations.

The potential acquisition of the property is fully dependent on the inclusion of tribal and other local stakeholders in any negotiating process and in the outcome of any land acquisition. Sole control of the entire mine site by the State alone would not take into account longstanding local and tribal interests, nor would it permanently prevent BHP Billiton or its competitors from returning to the site. Full state control could also preclude other possible sources of funding for land acquisition, and additional legal tools for the natural and cultural preservation of the site.

We propose a permanent solution to the mine controversy based on control of the site by an integrated board of state, tribal and local governments and land trust organizations, which would develop a joint land use plan to protect the local watershed and cultural properties (such as burial sites). We base this partnership on the success of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Board. This partnership would be established no matter what the mix and source of funding used in land acquisition, and no matter what the mix of property holdings and jurisdictions ultimately within the site.

3. Ensure that the State of Wisconsin and other potential buyers pay a realistic price for a mine site that is unlikely to receive permits, and allow for a mix of public and private funding. The implementation of any acquisition is fully dependent on the valuation of the land. A mining company makes project investments fully aware of the risk and financial fluctuations in the market. We believe that the Crandon mine will not receive permits due to the difficulties associated with proposed mining at this environmentally sensitive site.

We also believe that current and forecasted zinc and copper commodity surpluses as well as historic low price make an already risky proposal extremely unstable. The mining company has already written the Crandon mine site off ts books (in 1999), and declared it a "non-core asset" in 2000.

We would reserve the right to conduct our own property appraisal, and to oppose any purchase that emphasizes the value of a permitted mine. We are open to additional funding sources to help reduce the cost to the public.

4. Offer the mining company a dignified exit from Wisconsin, and enable sustainable development to replace the mine proposal. BHP Billiton has a unique opportunity to turn a risky investment into a global public relations win. The Australian/South African company has long claimed that it is responsive to communities' concerns about its mining projects. It can now demonstrate that claim, by recognizing that a majority of Wisconsin residents (in a 2001 poll) have stated that they do not want this mine.

The company also has a unique chance to "lock up" the ore body against any potential competitors. In place of an unsustainable and uncertain mine proposal, a public acquisition would enable area governments to devise low-impact and sustainable development to support the local economy.

Crandon mine opponents have invested many millions of dollars, their local communities' economic well being, and many years of their individual lives to protect the Wolf River headwaters.

The organizations represented below are prepared to publicly support the process leading to the public acquisition of the mine site if it follows the principles outlined above, and to actively oppose any solution that does not follow these principles.

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