Walker's Mining Agenda Moves Forward 07/21/12

Behre Dolbear A "businessman's consultant" hired by Tim Sullivan to carry on Walker's mining agenda.

Gov. Scott Walker has made mining reform legislation his top post-recall agenda item. "We should be able to lead the world in safe and environmentally sound mining," he said recently.

If this is the goal, he is proceeding in the wrong direction.

Walker has asked Tim Sullivan, president of the Wisconsin Mining Association, to bring together mining experts from around the world to compare Wisconsin's mining regulatory framework with our neighbors in Michigan and Minnesota. Sullivan has hired Behre Dolbear, a global mining consulting firm that describes itself on its website as a "businessman's consultant."

The not so-hidden agenda of this effort is to accommodate Gogebic Taconite's demand that Wisconsin speed up the permitting process and eliminate environmental rules that would have made it difficult for GTac to obtain a mine permit for the Penokee Hills open pit iron mine in Iron and Ashland counties.

If Walker is serious about Wisconsin's leadership in this area, he would do well to consult a recent study of sulfide mining regulation in the Great Lakes region, just released by the National Wildlife Federation ( www. Nwf.org/MiningReport ). Sulfide mining is defined as the mining of metals, such as copper, nickel and gold when embedded in a sulfide ore body.

There are a dozen mining companies, besides GTac, at various stages of sulfide mine development in the region, including the Lynne zinc deposit in Oneida County, the "Reef" gold deposit in the Town of Easton, east of Wausau, and the Back Forty gold deposit next to the Menominee River in the Upper Peninsula, bordering Wisconsin's Marinette County. The major unsolved problem with sulfide mining is how to extract these metals without creating acid mine drainage when the sulfide ores are exposed to air and water.

"Weak laws and lax enforcement undermine efforts to protect our water, wildlife and communities from this dangerous form of mining," said Michelle Halley, National Wildlife Federation attorney. "There is an urgent need for the region to address these issues now or likely face decades of contam ination and cleanup."

Wisconsin is already leading its neighbors in Michigan and Minnesota in the regulation of new sulfide mining, according to the Wildlife Federation study. Whereas Michigan and Minnesota are "poorly positioned to adequately regulate an onslaught of new sulfide mining," Wisconsin's sulfide mining law is singled out for having "the greatest regulatory scope of any of the U.S. jurisdictions surveyed."

The study calls Wisconsin's "Prove it First" law an exemplary law. Before the state can issue a permit for mining of sulfide ore bodies, potential miners must provide an example of where a metallic sulfide mine in the United States or Canada has not polluted surface or groundwaters during or after mining.

So far, the industry has not been able to find a single example where they have mined without polluting water, including the recently closed (1997) Flambeau copper sulfide mine in Ladysmith. This mine is the subject of a Clean Water Act lawsuit for discharging pollutants into the Flambeau River far in excess of applicable water quality standards.

Wisconsin would do well to recognize that the existing level of protection for our precious water, wildlife and community health was made possible by an engaged citizen and tribal base that has insisted on high quality laws and their implementation. Leaving decisions about mining regulation in the hands of mining industry experts, as Walker has proposed, can only lead to the contamination and cleanup costs that the NWF study warns us may occur if we allow our laws to be weakened. Don't expect Wisconsin citizens and tribes to allow this to happen without a fight.

Al Gedicks is emeritus professor of sociology at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the author of "Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations."