MAC: Mines and Communities

Activists push state to revisit buying mine site - Firm gave up plans for site near Crandon

Published by MAC on 2002-09-18

Activists push state to revisit buying mine site - Firm gave up plans for site near Crandon

By Tom Held

Last Updated: Sept. 17, 2002

Activists fighting against a proposed mine near Crandon urged the governor Tuesday to reconsider purchasing the property now that its owner has abandoned plans to extract minerals from the site.

Members of several environmental groups said the white flag from BHP Billiton, the parent company of Nicolet Minerals Co., shows the company has realized its proposed copper and zinc mine is not viable. The governor should use that leverage to negotiate again with the company and finally end the uncertainty of mining prospects at the headwaters of the Wolf River, said Rebecca Katers, executive director of the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin.

On Friday, Gov. Scott McCallum announced the state would not buy the 5,000-acre parcel near Crandon with money from its Stewardship Fund because of the cost. Two appraisals put the value of the property, including the mineral rights, at $51.2 million to $94 million.

And on Monday, Nicolet Minerals announced that it was laying off its employees in Crandon and that it planned to sell the property and mining rights. Even if Nicolet obtained the permits to mine the zinc and copper, the financial picture didn't warrant pursuit of the mine operation, said Dale Alberts, company president.

While announcing the plans to sell the property, Alberts said Nicolet would keep its permit application active with the state Department of Natural Resources. The department is seeking additional information from the company before issuing its preliminary environmental impact statement.

Alberts predicted the mine property would be sold within a few months to one of the companies that had shown interest in the mineral deposits.

Albert Gedicks and other mine opponents doubt that's true, saying BHP Billiton discovered what Exxon and Rio Algom had learned earlier in the 25-year history of the mine controversy: The site is too environmentally fragile to sustain a mining operation. In addition, the low prices now for copper and zinc make it unprofitable to pursue in the current market, said Gedicks, of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council.

Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association in Spokane, Wash., agreed it would be difficult to sell the mining interests to another company.

"Why would you come to Wisconsin and fight all those opposition groups and deal with a regulatory agency that is afraid to make a decision?" Skaer asked.

Katers said McCallum and the state should not be fooled by BHP Billiton's talk about selling the mining interests to another company, and that the price for the property should not include the value of the mineral rights because the mine is not viable.

In an interview Tuesday, McCallum blamed the potential lawsuits, and "the politics of delay, and added cost, of having to constantly not only go through the hoops, but go back over them again" for the company's decision to kill the mine.

McCallum said state officials ended negotiations that would have ensured the site would never be developed because the company wanted so much money that it would have "wiped out" the Stewardship Fund used to buy pristine properties to make sure they will never be developed.

Steven Walters of the Journal Sentinel staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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