Wisconsin Legislature Repeals Moratorium on Sulfide Mining
The Wisconsin State Senate passed a bill yesterday (November 7th, 2017) that rescinds the state’s “Prove It First” law. 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 (gold, silver, copper, etc.). In what has effectively acted as a moratorium, 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. Governor Walker is expected to sign the bill.
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 was extremely popular: a recent poll found that 72 percent of Wisconsinites approved of the law and wanted 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.
The bill’s sponsors cited 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.
Wisconsin’s bill would remove environmental impact statement requirements in some cases, would remove the authority of administrative law judges from blocking DNR decisions on mining applications, and would eliminate requirements that applicants establish a perpetual trust fund to cover environmental damage.
While the public was squarely against repeal, one stakeholder poised to benefit most from the new law is Aquila Resources, a Canadian exploration company that lobbied in favor of the bill. The corporation is considering two potential mining sites in northern Wisconsin’s Taylor and Marathon counties. Freshwater Future will continue to keep tabs on mining in Wisconsin as the effects of this bill play out in the coming months.