MAC: Mines and Communities

Firm may abandon battle to mine ore -

Published by MAC on 2002-09-18

Firm may abandon battle to mine ore -
Wisconsin foes fought for years to block operation

By Julie Deardorff, Chicago Tribune staff reporter

September 18, 2002

Crandon, Wis. - In a sign that a decades-long battle with environmentalists is taking its toll, the world's largest mining company shut the Wisconsin subsidiary it hoped would pull 55 million tons of zinc and copper ore from the ground, officials said Tuesday.

BHP Billiton officials said they are considering selling the 5,000 acres in northern Wisconsin that are not only rich in minerals but also hold the pristine headwaters of the Wolf River. A band of Chippewa Indians consider sacred a rice lake downstream from the proposed Crandon Mine site.

The company said it will continue to pursue the elusive state permits for the mine, despite closing the local office of Nicolet Minerals and laying off eight employees. Environmentalists and anti-mining groups, while heartened by the company's shift, say the fight is not over.

"The fact that the permit application has not been withdrawn leaves the future of the mine site in limbo," said Dave Blouin, coordinator of the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin.

For years battle lines have been drawn between locals who want the mine and the jobs it would bring, and newcomers who want to preserve the environmental character of the region, which includes more than 800 lakes, 82 trout streams and acres of wilderness.

Native Americans who live near the site believe the mine threatens their water supply, air quality and cultural traditions, including burial sites and wild rice resources.

Though the ore deposit was discovered by Exxon nearly three decades ago, the mining project has recently seen a flurry of activity. Last week Wisconsin rejected the idea of purchasing the land for conservation, a move environmentalists championed as a way to kill the mine proposal. State officials deemed the cost, estimated between $51 million and $94 million including mineral rights, too high.

Last month a delegation of local tribal members met with executives from BHP Billiton in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the first time the two groups have faced each other. In recent years the campaign against the mine has brought together Native Americans with sport fishing groups, environmentalists with union members and rural residents with urban students, said Zoltan Grossman, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a board member for the Midwest Treaty Network.

"It has been one of the most powerful grass-roots movements Wisconsin has ever seen," Grossman said.

Opponents of the Crandon Mine argue that if the ore is mined, it could create a boom-bust economy, irreparably damage the Wolf River and hurt tourism, which is supported by the north region's fragile wetlands, streams, wildlife and other natural resources.

Mine supporters tout its practical and economic advantages. Not only does modern society require minerals and metals for everything from batteries and sport-utility vehicles to nutritional supplements, but the Crandon Mine promises valuable jobs to one of the poorest counties in the state. Since 1996 more than 1,200 people have applied for 400 jobs at the mine, should it be built.

"The community needs good-paying jobs," said mine supporter Ron Eveland, 70, a member of the Forest County Board and the Crandon City Council. "I don't know what's going to happen with this. It's a mess."

Long-running dispute

The Crandon Mine saga spans a generation. In Nashville, a town of 1,157 where some of the ore is located, the dispute has so severely strained relationships that that the township is threatening to break in two. Generally, the south part of Nashville--where many former city dwellers have built homes around lakes--opposes the mine. The north end of the township--which has deep roots and is largely rural and working-class--supports the mine.

The Mole Lake band of the Sokaogon Chippewa, meanwhile, who live on an 1,800-acre reservation just a mile downstream from the proposed mine, is worried about the mine's impact on groundwater, as well as on nearby Swamp Creek, a tributary of the Wolf River, and Rice Lake, where they annually harvest wild rice for cultural and spiritual ceremonies. A major hurdle for the mining company is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing the Sokaogon Chippewa to set their own standard for groundwater used in the mining process. Leaders have promised it will be tougher than the state's.

"People could live with the mine if it definitely wouldn't pollute, but there is so much uncertainty," said Tina Van Zile, tribal vice chairwoman for the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa, one of the poorest and smallest tribes in the nation. "The uncertainty of the science could destroy who we are. We'd rather live with the creators' plan than the mining company's. It seems they don't worry about the future."

The proposed Crandon Mine--on one of the 10 largest ore deposits of its kind in the world--also has become a contentious issue in the state legislature. Although recent legislative attempts to doom the project have failed--including a proposal to ban the use of cyanide, essential to the mining process--several gubernatorial candidates are publicly opposed to it.

At stake, some say, are other mining project proposals across the mineral-rich state. If the Crandon Mine is successful, it "would show that you actually can permit a mine in Wisconsin," said Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association. "If they could get it permitted, other companies would be interested in exploring."

"All those people who have homes on the lake, computers, cell phones, SUV's, they all have stuff that came out of holes in the ground," Skaer said. "Unfortunately the minerals are where God put them. It's not like building a Ford plant."

Mine formed, found

Created 1.8 billion years ago when mineral-rich water, volcanic material and gases bubbled up through cracks in the sea floor, the zinc-copper sulfide deposit was discovered by Exxon in 1975 in Forest County, a rural timber region dotted with small towns.

The ore deposit, which also contains small amounts of lead, gold and silver, primarily runs east and west through Nashville and Lincoln, extending to a depth of 2,200 feet. According to the project plan, ore would be mined for 28 years at a rate of 5,500 tons per day by underground methods. The ore would be crushed underground and hoisted to the surface for milling.

The waste rock at Crandon contains pyrite, a sulfide-bearing mineral that can generate acid if exposed to air and water over a long period of time. The pyrite removed from the ore will be mixed with cement and used as backfill in the mine, according to Nicolet Minerals officials.

Nicolet Minerals, run by Dale Alberts, a former public affairs director, has spent more than $150 million making Crandon the "most environmentally friendly mine in the world," according to Alberts, who has conducted more than 300 public meetings and made presentations on the project to more than 13,000 people to improve mining's historically dreadful reputation.

"A major problem in the beginning was the company did a poor job communicating to the local people," said Alberts, who will stay on with the company at least until the land is sold. "Environmental groups got out ahead and frightened people." Alberts argues that the legitimate environmental concerns have been addressed and the rural population is being ignored.

"Urban centers are setting policy that is stifling, killing the rural way of life and the way we use natural resources," he said. "I've never seen the industry as diminished and hamstrung as it is today."

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