Proposed Exxon Mine Threatens Wisconsin

Alice McCombs (amccombs@MAIL.WISCNET.NET)
Wed, 18 Oct 1995 09:36:32 -0500

Watershed Information & News Service (WINS) reports on metallic sulphide
mining in the Great Lakes and Mississippi Watersheds.

Native American, sports groups, and environmentalists alike have joined
hands to protect their resources from Exxon
In 1975, Texas-based Exxon Minerals Co. found one of the world's largest
zinc-copper deposits adjacent to the Mole Lake Indian Reservation near
Crandon, Wisconsin. Situated at the headwaters of the Wolf River in Forest
County, the underground shaft mine would produce ore for 20-25 years. After
facing a decade of strong local opposition, Exxon withdrew from the project
in 1986, but returned in 1994 with its new partner--Canadian-based Rio
Algom--in their "Crandon Mining Co." (CMC).
The mine would disrupt far beyond its surface area of 866 acres. The
mine would generate an estimated 44 million tons of acidic wastes. Half of
the projected waste, rocky "coarse tailings," would be dumped to fill up
the mine shafts. The other half of the waste, "fine tailings" would be
dumped into a waste pond, about 90 feet deep and covering 355 acres. At a
size of about 340 football fields, the Exxon mine would be the largest
toxic waste dump in Wisconsin history.
When metallic sulphide wastes have contact with water or air, the result
is sulphuric acids and high levels of poisonous heavy metals like mercury,
lead, zinc, arsenic, copper and cadmium. To control leakage into wells and
streams, Exxon plans to place a cover on and a liner under the waste pond.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says that in nearby creeks
sulphate levels would rise fivefold and lead and arsenic levels threefold.
Future generations would face the threat of the tailings pond leaking,
flooding, or collapsing. No U.S. copper sulfphide mine has ever been
successfully reclaimed.
The EPA admits that tailings ponds are "regulated . . . loosely," and
that leaks from even the best dumps "will inevitably occur." The U.S Forest
Service says that "there are currently no widely applicable technologies"
to prevent acid mine drainage. The Interior Department's Fish & Wildlife
Service says the Crandon dump could poison groundwater with acid drainage
for up to 9000 years, yet Exxon plans to monitor it for only 40 years after
the mine closes. Exxon's own geologist admitted that "contamination is
bound to occur no matter how wisely a mine is designed."
In addition, the half-mile-deep mine shafts would themselves drain
groundwater supplies, in much the same way that a hypodermic needle draws
blood from a patient. The wastewater would be constantly pumped out of the
shafts, "drawing down" water levels in a four-square-mile area. This
"dewatering" could lower lakes by several feet, and dry up wells.
Exxon's original plan called for dumping up to 1000 gallons a minute
into trout-rich streams that drain into the nearby Wolf River. The Wolf is
a state Outstanding Resource Water (ORW)--allowing no degrading of its
pristine quality--and its lower half is protected as a National Wild and
Scenic River. The Wolf is the state's largest whitewater trout stream.
Trout Unlimited's Wolf River chapter says, "the mine as proposed would be a
serious threat to the Wolf River as a trout stream." The national
conservation group American Rivers has named the Wolf as one of the
nation's 20 most threatened rivers because of the Exxon mine.
The U.S. Bureau of Mines says that mine wastes have poisoned 10,000.
miles of rivers. There are many instances of fish kills, such as the
dramatic trout kill on Montana's Clark Fork River. The tourist industry
along the Wolf River would be severely damaged by even the public
perception of harm to the resources.
CMC President Jerry Goodrich said that "if we can't protect the Wolf,
there'll be no Crandon mine." Apparently CMC has decided the treated waste
water would not meet that standard, since it now plans to dump the liquid
waste into the Wisconsin River--endangering another major river. Since the
Wisconsin River is less protected than the Wolf, it would be cheaper to
treat the wastes. However, the Wolf would still be threatened by the
tailings dump, and groundwater drawdown would actually increase.
The planned mine lies on territory sold by the Chippewa Nation to the
U.S. in 1842, and directly on a 12-square-mile tract of land promised to
the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa in 1855. Treaties guaranteed Chippewa
access to wild rice, fish, and some wild rice on ceded lands. The Mole Lake
Reservation is a prime harvester of wild rice in Wisconsin. The
contamination and draw-down of water directly threatens the survival of
both fish and rice beds. Wild rice is central to the Sokaogon Chippewa
The nearby Menominee, Potawatomi, and Stockbridge-Munsee nations would
also be severly affected by the mine pollution and the social upheaval
brought in by new outsiders. The Mole Lake tribal council showed by ripping
up a $20,000 Exxon check (which would have bought reservation mineral
rights) that land is more precious than greed. Tribal judge Fred Ackley
says, "If they go ahead with their mine, our tribe is going to be
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