A federal court ruled on July 25, 2012 that the Flambeau Mining Company violated the Clean Water Act on multiple occasions by allowing pollution from its Flambeau Mine site, near Ladysmith, WI, to enter the Flambeau River and a nearby tributary.
The lawsuit resulting in the ruling was filed early last year by the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and Laura Gauger against the Flambeau Mining Company, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto and formerly of Kennecott Minerals Company. The complaint charged that the mine site, which closed in 1997, discharges stormwater runoff containing toxic levels of metals from a detention basin known as the biofilter.
Monitoring data from the mining company and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources show that copper levels in the discharge exceeded Wisconsin’s acute toxicity criterion of 8 micrograms per liter—set to protect fish and other aquatic species—sometimes by several times.
The Flambeau is a popular river for fishing and canoeing and provides habitat for a wide variety of aquatic and wildlife species, including bald eagles and osprey. The Flambeau Mine operated near the river from 1993 to 1997. Since the close of mining operations, Flambeau Mining Company has faced persistent groundwater and surface water quality problems at the site, most notably at a 32- acre industrial park that remains operational.
The mining industry often cites the Flambeau Mine as a model mine that has fully complied with environmental laws. The court’s ruling, however, confirms years of concerns from local citizens that for even this small, short-term mine, the mining company has been unable to stop heavy metals from reaching and polluting the nearby Flambeau River.
Wisconsin’s Mining Moratorium Law prohibits the mining of a sulfide ore body unless mine proponents can point to a mine that has been closed for at least 10 years without polluting the environment. The pollution caused by the relatively small Flambeau Mine takes on added significance in light of new proposals for copper, nickel, zinc and iron mines throughout the Great Lakes region and beyond.
“It’s been a long road, and I very much appreciate the solid support given to us by Freshwater Future,” said Laura Gauger. “The grant monies and words of encouragement from staff came at just the right time to help us keep moving forward with the lawsuit, and for that I am most grateful. Indeed, this project has been a grand coming together of citizens, tribal members and organizations who saw the precedentsetting nature of the case and were bound and determined to see it through to the end. To all of these individuals I say, ‘Thank you.”