Wisconsin Considers Repeal of Popular “Prove It First” Mining Law

Posted on September 13, 2017 by

Open-pit sulfide mines expose sensitive sulfide rock formations that release devastating and long-lasting pollution when mixed with water. Wisconsinites—tell your legislators to vote no on repealing “Prove It First.”

Wisconsin State Senator Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) introduced a bill that would effectively rescind the state’s “Prove It First” law.  This landmark legislation requires mining corporations to provide an example of a metallic sulfide mine in the U.S. that hasn’t polluted local watersheds in order to establish operations in the state. One peer-reviewed study found that 76% of mining projects that claimed they would not pollute still did so. More importantly, 100% of sulfide mines have failed to properly contain sulfide pollution.

Passed in 1998 with overwhelming bipartisan support (29-3 in the Senate and 91-6 in the Assembly), “Prove It First” was a reaction to high-profile cases of pollution from sulfide mines. When sulfide rock comes into contact with water, the reaction produces sulfuric acid runoff—a dangerous and long-lasting pollutant that devastates rivers, lakes, and streams. The most recent and highly-publicized incident of sulfide mine pollution was in 2015, when 3 million gallons of wastewater was accidentally released in Colorado’s Animas River, turning the normally blue water bright orange. The once-sparkling river is now contaminated with dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, zinc and copper.

Wisconsin’s precautionary protection has proved extremely popular: a recent poll found that 72 percent of Wisconsinites approve of the law and want it preserved for the future—and their strong support is justified. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the headwaters of more than 40% of the streams in the western United States, where regulations have been lax, are contaminated by acid mine drainage. Additionally, copper sulfide mines are the largest source of taxpayer liability under the EPA’s Superfund cleanup program, costing the public billions of dollars while largely letting polluters off the hook.

State Senator Tiffany’s proposal cites the alleged sterling environmental record of Wisconsin’s Flambeau metallic sulfide mine, owned and operated by Kennecot/Rio Tinto in Ladysmith, WI. But in 2012, federal Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the Flambeau Mining Company violated the Clean Water Act on numerous occasions by polluting “Stream C,” a tributary of the Flambeau River. The company’s own monitoring wells also showed that nearby groundwater contained high levels of manganese, zinc, copper, and sulfates—in some cases hundreds of times higher than allowable for? drinking water standards.

Senator Tiffany’s proposal would also relax wetland and groundwater protections, constrain the time regulators have to review mine plans, limit challenges to state mining permits, exempt mine companies from fees that cover costs of handling hazardous waste, and lessen financial liability for mining companies.

While the public is squarely against repeal, one stakeholder poised to benefit most from the bill is Aquila Resources, a Canadian exploration company that owns the controversial Back Forty metallic sulfide mine proposal. The project lies adjacent to the Menominee River, which forms the border between Michigan and Wisconsin and empties into Lake Michigan. The bill’s passage would remove the only formidable legal barrier preventing similar mines from moving forward on the Wisconsin side of the border. Aquila has expressed interest in at least two Wisconsin locations. 

Open-pit sulfide mines expose sensitive sulfide rock formations that release devastating and long-lasting pollution when mixed with water. Wisconsinites—tell your legislators to vote no on repealing “Prove It First.”


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