After months of secretive deliberations with lobbyists, Senator Tom Tiffany finally released his Industrial Acid Mining Bill, LRB2652-1, to the public. It is exactly what we feared: a repeal of the Prove It First mining law and a reckless giveaway to out-of-state polluters.
For 20 years, Wisconsin’s waters, public lands, and wildlife have been protected by the “Prove It First” mining law. That law requires mining companies to provide specific proof a sulfide mine can run for 10 years and be closed for 10 years without polluting groundwater and surface waters with acid drainage.
In 20 years, no mining company has provided this proof.
Now, if Senator “Toxic Tom” Tiffany gets his way, sulfide mining – the most toxic industry in America – is coming back to Wisconsin (1).
Sulfide mining is responsible for poisoning the environment with toxic waste like arsenic, mercury, and lead – dangerous carcinogens and neurotoxins. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the mining of sulfide ore “America’s most toxic industry.” Since 1997, the metal mining industry has accounted for 41 percent of all toxic materials reported to the EPA (2).
Now that this reckless legislation is public, Wisconsinites will know the truth – sulfide mining poisons our communities and environment for generations, and beyond.
The Dirtiest Industry in America
There has never been a sulfide mine that has not polluted nearby drinking water or other water resources like lakes and rivers. The process requires massive amounts of ore to be extracted (i.e., blown up with high explosives), the metals removed, then reburied in the ground – or shipped off to another location.
The result? Sometimes less than one percent of the material contains the desired metal but it creates millions of tons of waste. This waste contains sulfides, which when exposed to water and air create sulfuric acid – battery acid. This noxious brew – known as acid mine drainage – is brightly colored acid water containing heavy metals that can destroy life, poison groundwater, and turn the surrounding area – including lakes and rivers – into dead zones. Remember the images of a bright yellow Animus River in Colorado two years ago? That’s acid mine drainage. Unfortunately, there have been yellow rivers all across the country, and once acid mine drainage enters a water resource it’s there forever.
Acid Mining is Destructive to Public Health and the Environment
Exposure to these toxins through air, water, ingestion, or skin contact carry a host of health risks including kidney damage, liver damage, respiratory illness, neurological damage, and cancer (3).
The public health implications of sulfide mining are deadly serious. In fact, medical professionals in areas where sulfide mining takes place are trained about the dangers and risks of mining to the people in their communities.
Manganese, thallium, arsenic, copper, lead, mercury, and more are all byproducts of the sulfide mining process. These heavy metals are carcinogenic at high levels. Lead is a devastating toxin that damages children’s brains and leads to lower IQs and behavioral problems. Arsenic has been linked to kidney, liver, lung, and bladder cancer.
The potential sites for sulfide mining encompass some of Wisconsin’s most beautiful landscapes and most fragile environments. The deposits include:
• The Lynne Deposit in Oneida County – For many families in Wisconsin going “Up North” means heading to Oneida County and Minocqua, where all things water drive tourism. Unfortunately, this area is home to one of the state’s richest mineral deposits, and mining companies are drooling over it.
• The Bend Deposit – Canadian-owned mining exploration company Aquila (pronounced: AH•kee•LAH) Resources has complete control of this piece of Wisconsin, located in Taylor County just miles from the former Flambeau sulfide mine. Taylor County is home to county, state, and federal forests. The Medford area is a hunting, fishing, and camping destination that brags about its 100 lakes.
• The Reef Site – Aquila Resources also controls the Reef Gold Deposit outside of Wausau. Marathon County is home to Rib Mountain State Park.
• The Thornapple Deposit in Rusk County – Rusk County is home to the Blue Hills, a section of the Ice Age Trail, popular and productive trout streams, and clean, clear lakes stocked with all manner of panfish. It, too, sits atop one of the mining industry’s targets.
These and other deposits in Wisconsin are currently being eyed, or exploration rights are being bought up by mining interests willing to scar the landscapes and poison the nearby waters for a fast buck.
Mines Don’t Create Prosperity
The mining companies chomping at the bit to blast open Wisconsin’s landscape and fill it in with battery acid aren’t even Wisconsin-owned. Aquila Resources is Canadian, while others are based in western states, southern states, and even South America.
It is Aquila Resources that has been buying up mining exploration rights, drilling test holes in our landscapes, and proposing projects quietly here in Wisconsin. Its fingers are in potential mining areas like the Bend Deposit, the Reef Site, and the Back 40 Mine – just across the border in Michigan. Aquila clearly has a plan. If Toxic Tom has his way, he’s going to help them bring it to fruition.
Many communities across the Midwest have fallen prey to the mining companies’ bait and switch routine. They come in promising plentiful, long-term jobs and economic development but the reality is the opposite.
In fact, mining researchers have said, “Across the United States, mining communities (are) noted for high levels of unemployment, slow rates of growth of income and employment, high poverty rates, and stagnant or declining populations (4).”
Mining creates enormous barriers to economic development and diversification because the area is less attractive for other industries, due to the pollution of the land, air, and water. Ultimately, those areas experience higher rates of economic distress – the classic case of boom and bust.
Wisconsin’s current mining standards balance their water needs with those of other water-dependent Wisconsin industries:
• Wisconsin’s agricultural industry is fundamentally dependent on the availability of clean water and productive soils. Agriculture contributes $88.3 billion annually to the state economy, and provides 413,500 jobs or 11.9 percent of the state’s employment (5).
• Tourism reached $20 billion in 2016, up $700 million from 2015. Tourism directly and indirectly supports 193,500 jobs in Wisconsin (6). If we are to create more good jobs in Wisconsin, we must have clean and adequate water protections.
On the flip side, not maintaining public health standards and natural resources can be expensive:
• The cost of drilling a new well when a neighboring industry draws yours down (around $10,000 for an average family).
• What is the price of having your child’s drinking water contaminated with lead, a toxin known to cause developmental problems in children? Or manganese, a carcinogen?
• How many jobs will never be created because depleted or polluted natural resources choke out the potential for new industries?
Voters Don’t Want It
A poll conducted by the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Policy Research Institute found that voters believed “environmental regulations should not be weakened” “in order to create mining jobs in northern Wisconsin” by a convincing 14 percent margin. Those voters who considered themselves independents opposed the weakening of environmental regulations by a 10 percent margin. Women especially opposed the measure (53-33 percent) (7).
The Industrial Acid Mining Bill is Toxic Tom Tiffany’s gift to the mining companies. The dirtiest industry in the country has no place in Wisconsin, where water resources are rich and disaster – both environmental and financial – is inevitable.
- Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 “Toxic Release Inventory.” https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/complete_2011_tri_na_overview_document.pdf
- Sulfide Mining and Health: A Primer for Family Docs, Deb Allert MD & Emily Onello MD, Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, Spring Refresher April 21, 2017
- Power, T.M. 2005. The Economic Anomaly of Mining- Great Wealth, High Wages, Declining Communities. A Decision-Makers Field Guide.
- Dept. of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, 2017, https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Publications/WIAgStatistics.aspx
- Wisconsin Dept. of Tourism, 2016, http://industry.travelwisconsin.com/uploads/medialibrary/e4/e4babea4-c3a0-4c8c-a9f8-5ce446c05b2c-poweroftourism-sheet.pdf
- The Wisconsin Policy and Research Institute, “The Oct. 2011 WPRI Poll of Public Opinion” WPRI, Oct. 30, 2011. Web. Jan. 11, 2012.
- MiningTruth.org, http://www.miningtruth.org/faq-sulfide-mining-minnesota-truth-report.pdf
- Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, https://www.glifwc.org/publications/pdf/SulfideMining.pdf
- Mining Action Group, 2017 http://savethewildup.org/issues/sulfide-mining-101/