Tailing Exxon and Rio Algom

By Gedicks, Al; Grossman, Zoltan | Multinational Monitor, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Tailing Exxon and Rio Algom


Gedicks, Al, Grossman, Zoltan, Multinational Monitor


In 1986, after a decade of strong local opposition, Exxon Minerals withdrew its application to construct a large underground mine next to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa reservation in northeastern Wisconsin. Nine years later, Exxon and Canada-based Rio Algom have formed the Crandon Mining Company (CMC). CMC filed a 10,000-page permit application to extract 55 million tons of zinc-copper sulfide ore at the site over 25 years, enough to yield more than $4 billion worth of zinc and copper. But the latest efforts of the mining companies to sell local communities on the project have been hindered by activists, who have publicized the unflattering track records that these corporations have acquired elsewhere in the Americas.

In 1975, Texas-based Exxon Minerals discovered one of the 10 largest zinc-copper sulfide deposits in North America adjacent to the Mole Lake Reservation, near Crandon, Wisconsin. Situated at the headwaters of the Wolf River in Forest County, the proposed mine is the largest of a series of metallic sulfide deposits planned for development in the northern part of the state. The project's impact would extend far beyond its 550-acre site. When exposed to air or water, metallic sulfides produce sulfuric acids. The ore also contains such poisonous heavy metals as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium. Over its lifetime, the mine would generate an estimated 44 million tons of wastes. If dumped at one site, this waste would form the largest toxic waste dump in Wisconsin.

Janet Smith, a field officer from the Green Bay office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, has criticized CMC for failing to acknowledge that its operations would contaminate the groundwater in the area for as long as 9,000 years. Dr. David Blowes, a mine waste expert with the Waterloo Centre for Groundwater Research in Ontario, Canada, says "all of the tailings [waste] produced will have an extremely high-acid generating potential." The mine's half-mile-deep shafts would drain groundwater supplies much as a syringe draws blood from a patient, drawing down water levels over an area of four square miles.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing at Mole Lake in early 1995 to hear comments on the Exxon/Rio Algom proposal. Tribal members unanimously opposed the proposal, saying it would threaten the wild rice they harvest from the reservation's Rice Lake. Charles Ackley, the son of the late Chief Willard Ackley, makes a living harvesting wild rice on the lake, which he says the mine would ruin. "East of us here, where this mine is supposed to take place, is all spring fed," he says. "If they start fooling around underground, there are going to be a lot of lakes going dry east of us here. And suppose Exxon taps into our underground water spring? What is going to happen to our water situation in our community?"

Whitewater

Joining the Sokaogon Chippewa are the nearby Menominee, Potawatomi, Stockbridge-Munsee and Oneida nations, which are also concerned that they would be harmed by the mining operations. All five tribes are working with environmental and sport-fishing groups through a broad-based campaign called WATER, the Watershed Alliance toward Environmental Responsibility. Some participants in this campaign are not traditional allies. Conflict over treaty spearfishing rights in Wisconsin between 1984 and 1992 pitted sport-fishing groups against the Chippewa. But the mining threat has brought Native Americans and sport-fishing groups together to protect common resources. "If the mine were to go in, it would wipe out the Wolf River trout stream and create a pile of tailings that in 50 years would be a Superfund [hazardous waste] site," says Herb Buettner, owner of the Wild Wolf Inn and president of the Wolf River chapter of Trout Unlimited.

But Crandon Mining Company President Jerry Goodrich disagrees. "If we can't protect the Wolf, there'll be no Crandon mine," he says.

Indeed, many people in Wisconsin agree that the river takes precedence over corporate mining ambitions. …

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