Metal Mining in the Great Lakes

Metal Mining in the Great Lakes

Modern times haven’t entirely replaced metal with plastics. Demand for metals is high—stainless steel appliances, nickel for batteries, metals for jewelry. Unfortunately, metals easy to mine have been removed. The remaining metals in the ground are much harder to get out. In the Great Lakes region, metals are often found in sulfur containing rocks, which is commonly described as “sulfide mining.” These mines are a lot different than iron mines or gravel pits and carry a unique danger. When the rock is crushed and the sulfides come in contact with air and water, an irreversible chemical reaction may occur, creating sulfuric acid. This is commonly called “acid rock drainage.” Deemed one of the most serious threats to water quality by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, acid rock drainage from sulfide mining already has polluted more than 12,000 miles of rivers and streams and over 180,000 acres of lakes and impoundments in the U.S.

A second problem associated with sulfide mining is known as “metals leaching.” Even if the water at the mine site does not turn acidic, toxic metals may still leach into ground and surface waters from the crushed rock, making it unfit to drink and poisonous to fish and other aquatic species. Acid rock drainage and metals leaching from sulfide mines can devastate rivers, streams, and aquatic life for hundreds, and under the “right” conditions, thousands of years. There has never been a metallic sulfide mine that has failed to pollute its watershed.

Freshwater Future has provided nearly 20 grants and consulting services to several groups including Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, Save the Wild UP, Water- Legacy, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, Save Lake Superior Association, Northwoods Wilderness Recovery, and Anishinaabe Niijii, to support their efforts to get involved in permit review, pollution cleanup, and education about the impacts of sulfide mining.

Thanks to these organizations and many others— we are making strides to address the impacts of historic sulfide mining and, hopefully, prevent these harmful impacts into the future. The following highlights a few of these efforts.

Michigan — After all the regulatory and legal avenues had been exhausted and a mine in the Upper Peninsula received its permits for construction, the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve was still not ready to throw in the towel. Emily Whittaker, executive director at the Yellow Dog, participated in Freshwater Future’s Climate Symposium. After participating, Emily realized that the new mine had not planned for climate change. How would this impact the level of pollution at the mine? The Yellow Dog applied and received a climate grant from Freshwater Future to inform decision makers about how extractive industries (i.e.sulfide mining) will be affected by climate change. Preliminary research has found that conventional models used to predict water management for mine discharges are no longer applicable due to climate change impacts. For example, the Soil and Water Conservation Society has data that shows storm events in the Midwest have increased by 46%. Increasing water and air temperature will cause metal discharges to become more toxic thus impacting species such as the Coaster Brook Trout, particularly during spawning. When the research is completed the Yellow Dog will be presenting this information to decision makers with the hope that additional protective measures will be required to prevent pollution.

Minnesota — Wild rice is more than just a plant in Minnesota. It is the State grain, and there are special water quality regulations to protect it. Natural wild rice is very sensitive to elevated sulfates, and can act as the “canary in the mine,” signaling ill effects to entire watershed ecosystems. Yet, the first proposed sulfide mine in the state would discharge to the St. Louis River Watershed, already showing evidence of wild rice destruction from 100 years of iron/taconite mining. On behalf of its mining members, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit attacking the sulfate standard for wild rice waters. WaterLegacy interceded, standing up to say, “no, the polluters do not get to make the rules.” Diadra Decker of WaterLegacy shared, “Both native and non-native residents who hunt, fish and gather wild rice rely on rigorous enforcement of the rule’s limit on sulfate pollution.” Sulfate pollution also methylates mercury, increasing toxicity in the food chain, exacerbating fish-consumption advisories and affecting the health of humans who rely on wild-caught fish for food.” WaterLegacy and allied groups in the Minnesota Environmental Partnership are working to uphold the wild rice protection rule in agency rule-making and in the Legislature as well as in court.

Wisconsin — One of the newer mines located in Ladysmith, Wisconsin was supposedly the best the industry had to offer in terms of making the argument that sulfide mining could be done in an “environmentally responsible” manner. The mining company’s data on file with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, unfortunately, shows that both ground and surface waters at the mine site have been polluted.

Laura Gauger is personally dedicated to preserving clean water and she walks her talk. Laura, along with the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit in January against the company that owns the mine near Ladysmith. The law suit claims the mining company is violating federal law by discharging pollutants, including potentially toxic metals like copper, iron and zinc, into the Flambeau River and a tributary known as “Stream C” that flows across the company’s property. Court dates are set for later this year. Laura shared, “This mine is being showcased by the industry as an example of “environmentally responsible” mining. Sure, the prairie grass and wildflowers planted at the site look okay. But don’t let that fool you! As the late Roscoe Churchill of Ladysmith used to say, “It’s just grass over a grave.” The real question to ask is: “What about the water?” She believes “It’s unfit to drink and unfit to support life. Our lawsuit is meant to expose the truth and fix the problem,” stated Laura.

Through these citizen-led efforts progress is being made to require stronger regulations, monitor and document impacts, and engage community members in decision making, as well as spurring long-term planning for economic development that is not dependent on mining. As with all citizen-led efforts, Emily, Diadra, and Laura have had lots of help— thousands of hours of volunteer help.

You can help too. Below are some actions you can take related to sulfide mining.

• Educate your elected officials and decision makers about the impacts of sulfide mines on our waters and request stronger regulation to prevent pollution. • Recycle your metal through local recycling efforts. • Purchase metal items that contain recycled metals. • Sign-up for Freshwater Future’s email list to receive emails and more action items related to this topic.

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.