Penokee Mining: Points to Ponder from Nick Vander Puy

Some Questions for Mining the Penokees

by Nick Vander Puy

“Anything we do to nature, we do to ourselves.”

David Suzuki

During my early years as a public radio reporter in northern Wisconsin I was holding the microphone for a telephone interview with an Exxon Coal and Minerals official in Rhinelander who wanted to build a several billion dollar copper, gold, and silver mine less than a mile upstream from the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa community and their wild rice beds, draining into the Wolf River, near Crandon, Wisconsin. Dick Brooks, my mentor, from tribal station WOJB asked Exxon manager Jerry Goodrich about the project. Things were going quite smoothly until Brooks asked Goodrich, “Mr. Goodrich, can you point us towards a successfully re-claimed metallic sulfide mine?”

Sweat broke on Goodrich’s forehead, his face flushed, when Goodrich’s PR handler, J. Wiley Bragg, interrupted the interview, “Dick, we’ll have to get back to you on that question. ” Bragg promptly shut down the Q and A. You see, Bragg had handled the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska (which is still being litigated by commercial fishermen) and was alert to penetrating questions. 

Well, the company never did get back to us. But the question and the work of thousands of others, tribal members, hunters and fishermen, canoeists, kayakers democrat, republican, and green was translated into Wisconsin’s stringent Mining Moratorium Law. Gov. Tommy Thompson signed this law into effect in the spring 1997 on the banks of the Wolf River. 

When world mineral prices faded in 2003 the Pottawatomi and Mole Lake tribes purchased the Crandon mine. Selling the land and mineral rights for only 16.5 million dollars to the tribes the mining company cited a “hostile political climate.”

The mining company never had and today still can’t adequately demonstrate a successfully re-claimed metallic sulfide mine anywhere in the world. The mining companies frame their projects in terms of the precious metals or minerals they’re attempting to extract and the resulting payroll. The mining companies almost never speak of post mine consequences like toxic chemical levels above state standards, the deaths of birds, animals, trees, insects, fish, insects, frogs, wild rice, and men. 

Has last summer’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico faded completely from our consciousness?

Well, just to be clear and coherent about mining in the north woods , if you remember from high school chemistry, sulfide bearing rock exposed to water and hydrogen and oxygen in the mining process forms H2SO4. That’s sulfuric acid. The mining raises this toxin to the surface and into the water table. This toxin leaks into the eco-system and poisons life. 

Ever see wild rice growing downstream from a successfully, reclaimed metallic sulfide mine? Ask the mining companies to point towards one.

So the larger question becomes not whether these mines will pollute, but what is the level of “acceptable” poisoning to the earth. The mining companies are quick to toss up bribes to governmental officials and the promise of jobs for us to buy into their plans.

Every decade or so, someone threatens to re-open iron ore mining in the Penokee Mountains near Mellen, Wisconsin. This project would drain north towards the Bad River Ojibway reserve and Lake Superior. Iron ore prices have jumped 22% this past year.

The latest proposal from the Cline coal mining group talks about our insatiable need for iron ore and offering our community about 600 $50,000 jobs for several decades. The project in the Penokees, draining towards wild rice and maple sugar bushes and Lake Superior is being touted as “environmentally friendly” because the mine isn’t susceptible to acid mine drainage.

Well, I don’t’ have the geological knowledge to confirm this mining company pitch or not. I have read on line, “The Penokee-Gogebic Range has recently been identified by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) as having a high potential for undiscovered copper and nickel deposits. If iron mining were to occur, copper could be produced as a by-product, and pose risks inherent to all metallic sulfide ore mining." 

Anyway, this would be another question for the mining company geologists, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, or the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission to answer. 

These questions can be raised with mining officials at a public forum Jan. 19 at the Great Lakes Visitor Center, off highway 2, west of Ashland between 6-8pm. Another speaker at the forum, Anishinaabe elder Tony DePerry, who grew up in the Canadian bush and didn’t speak English until he was around ten years old, will talk about the proposed mine’s impact on plants, animals, water, and people.

The question about industrial development was raised by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, during our fight a few years ago against the giant electric transmission and Enbridge tar sand pipeline slicing across northwestern Wisconsin. Having canoed the Namekagon River, and quoting Herman Melville, in the classic story about industrial whaling “Moby Dick” Nelson told an audience in Springbrook, Wisconsin, “The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.” 

Melville thought whales would survive the industrial onslaught. His optimism has been proven wrong. 

Nick Vander Puy

LaPointe, Wisconsin