MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Mining firm would consider land sale; Foes urge public purchase of Crandon site

Published by MAC on 2002-06-21

Mining firm would consider land sale; Foes urge public purchase of Crandon site

By Lee Bergquist

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

June 21, 2002

Nicolet Minerals Co. said Thursday that it would be willing to sell the land and mineral rights at its proposed mine near Crandon - a move that could end two decades of debate about the project.

But details of any deal were sketchy, with questions going unanswered over who would buy the 5,000-acre parcel and how much it would cost. A group of environmentalists and Indian tribes that have opposed the project proposed a "public acquisition" of the property that Nicolet wants to use for an underground copper and zinc mine.

The most likely buyers would be the state and three tribes that are near the project. Gov. Scott McCallum called the proposal "intriguing" and said his administration wants to meet with Nicolet to talk.

Nicolet President Dale Alberts said the company would consider selling the property if it was in the best interests of its Australian parent, BHP Billiton Group, and was a good deal for shareholders.

A volatile issue The Crandon mine has been one of the most contentious environmental issues in Wisconsin in decades - a classic battle pitting economic development against the environment. While Nicolet says it could meet any environmental limits imposed on the company, opponents say they proposed the buyout because, although they believe the project faces an uphill battle from the Department of Natural Resources, they want to ensure that the land will not be purchased by another mining company.

"Simply defeating the mine permit is not enough, unless the land is permanently taken out of the hands of mining companies," said Zoltan Grossman, of the Midwest Treaty Network's Wolf Watershed Educational Project. Experts said the sale price of the land would hinge on how the value of minerals would be calculated. Although the site has been described as one of North America's richest ore bodies, its value hinges on whether the company could prove that it could pass regulatory approval.

Nicolet wants to recover 55 million tons of copper and zinc, and smaller quantities of lead, silver and gold at the Forest County site. But environmental groups have raised questions about the mine's effect on groundwater and its impact on the surrounding area, including the Wolf River.

The project has been marked by a series of delays and strong public opposition, including the passage of a mining moratorium bill in 1998.

Tribal water standards upheld Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court decision that the Sokaogon (Mole Lake) Chippewa have the right to raise water quality standards on their reservation in northern Wisconsin so they are higher than the state's.

The mine would be next to the reservation and would use groundwater in its mining process. The decision meant Nicolet would have to return water to the same pristine quality as before it came into contact with the mine.

"That means you are essentially discharging distilled water and we don't believe they could have done it," said Dave Blouin of the Sierra Club.

However, Nicolet said after the decision was announced that it could meet stricter limits set down by the tribe.

Nicolet recently used a go-between to contact environmentalists and the Indians about a possible sale, both sides said, after opponents demanded more than two years ago that the company turn over the land.

Nicolet's overture comes at a time of weak prices for metals and as its parent company has sold off other mining assets. "I think what happened today caught a lot of people off guard," said DNR Secretary Darrell Bazzell.

Bazzell said he did not get wind of the deal until Wednesday night. Business group blasts proposal Several politicians who have been critics of the mine applauded Thursday's developments. But the state's largest business organization was hotly critical.

"The state's only role should be to either approve or reject the permit for the mine," said James S. Haney, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. "Wisconsin has a $1.1 billion deficit and the taxpayers shouldn't be forced to pick up the tab to buy out a project deemed politically unpopular."

Haney said environmentalists should buy the land themselves. The Sierra Club's Blouin said that private dollars could be part of the acquisition, "but our goal has been to make this a public property from the get-go." Funding from some Wisconsin Indian tribes is also possible, said Tina Van Zile, vice chairwoman of the Sokaogon.

As outlined by environmentalists and the tribes, the land would be a conservation area, devoted to sustainable land use, tourism and promoting tribal cultural values. Crandon Mine - Proposed Deal A coalition of environmental groups and Wisconsin tribes Thursday proposed a public purchase of the 5,000-acre site of a proposed mine in Crandon in northern Wisconsin.

If the purchase went forward, it would kill the project after two decades of debate. Nicolet Minerals, which owns the property, says it is open to the idea of selling the land.

Gov. Scott McCallum also said he will consider the proposal, although the cost is unknown.

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