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August 17, 2019

9/2/2017 7:29:00 AM
What the heck is sulfide mining... and why is Tiffany's new mining law bad for northern Wisconsin?

A few weeks ago I shared a letter that I had sent to Senator Tiffany pleading for him to not introduce his proposed legislation repealing the 20-year old moratorium on industrial (sulfide) acid mining. Last week, the Senator announced his "Mining for America Act," which proposes to repeal the existing mining protection legislation, which many suggest would go even further to reduce existing safeguards and practices from sulfide ore mining.

Do you know what sulfide mining is? Sulfide mining is the practice of extracting metals such as copper, gold, silver and nickel from a sulfide-rich ore body. It typically involves explosives and heavy mining equipment to expose the rock containing the metal ore. The mining process is essentially traditional hard-rock mining from open-pit mines. There are a couple of major environmental issues that are cause for concern. The first is caused by run-off from the tailings - the rubble created when the rock containing the metal ore is broken up. A by-product of the metallic mining process are sulfides, that when exposed to water and air create sulfuric acid - basically battery acid. This runoff also carries heavy metal contaminates such as copper and zinc which are equally devastating to aquatic organisms.

The second issue is caused by the ore processing, separating the metals from the sulfide ore and other rock. In order to extract the precious metals, which are present in extremely small quantities, the mining company excavates large amounts of rock containing the metals and sulfides which are then pulverized, mixed with a cyanide compound, and left in a huge pile. The cyanide solution leaches the precious metals from the sulfide ore. The precious metals are then recovered from the cyanide solution by another process. In countless mining operations throughout the world this cyanide leaching solution has spilled into streams and subsurface water supplies causing serious environmental problems. In Colorado the tops of entire mountains were removed and, when the cyanide leaching solution spilled into nearby streams, the mining companies simply walked away, leaving monstrous superfund sites. There has never been a sulfide mine that has not polluted nearby water resources. The legacy of sulfide mining is very expensive to remediate, and typically becomes a burden for taxpayers. Acid mine drainage poisons water forever. There is no antidote, and no fix for the damage caused in the effort to collect small amounts of these precious metals.

Finally, I want to clarify the action that Senator Tiffany wants to take. The current law, which has been in place since 1988, is often referred to as a "mining moratorium," but is more accurately named the "prove-it-first" mining law. The law does not prohibit sulfide mining companies from operating in Wisconsin, but rather it requires companies that want to develop sulfide mines in Wisconsin to demonstrate that another mine located anywhere in the U.S. has been able to operate for 10 years and then be closed for 10 years without polluting groundwater and surface water. The bill that Tiffany introduced would repeal this requirement. This is the law that has kept mining out of Wisconsin since these requirements have never been met - anywhere. Tiffany claims that sulfide mining can be done safely in the state, but the mining industry has yet to offer a single example of a successfully operated and closed sulfide metals mine.

Senator Tiffany has erroneously cited the success of the Flambeau mine clean-up as the principle justification for the repeal of the "prove-it-first" law. However, the results of this project are far from proving the environmental safety of sulfide mining. First, this small (32 acres) pilot project only operated for four years and second, it is far from clean. The small 32-acre pilot site produced over 8 million tons of sulfide rock tailings. The open pit was filled-in and the surface was re-contoured and replanted. However, while on the surface the former mine site may appear remediated, water runoff from the mine does not meet Wisconsin surface or groundwater water quality standards. Runoff continues to pollute a stream which flows into the Flambeau River. Multiple water samples taken since 2004 show significantly elevated levels of heavy metals including copper and zinc. At one sampling station the copper level is approximately 10 times that acute water quality standard, and the zinc level is approximately twice the water quality standard. Copper and zinc are synergistic metals, so their combined impact on aquatic life is devastating. In 2012 a federal judge ruled that the mining company had violated the US Clean Water Act.

Because the Flambeau mine was developed as a pilot project, the precious metal processing was not actually done on-site, but rather the ore was hauled to another site for processing. Fortunately, the Flambeau River watershed was spared the risk of poisonous cyanide contamination. This site does not even qualify as a candidate for the "prove-it-first" mine project and it certainly doesn't earn the right to be an example of sulfide mining success.

The mining industry has yet to offer a single example of a successfully operated and closed sulfide metals mine anywhere in the United States in the past 20 years. We should not let Wisconsin be another example of failure. Wisconsin citizens and their representatives should wonder why Senator Tiffany wants to lead us into failure for a few pieces of silver.

Tell Senator Tiffany we like our existing "Prove It First" mining law!

Dave Noel

Retired engineer

Sugar Camp

Reader Comments

Posted: Sunday, October 1, 2017
Article comment by: kathleen sisco

Thank You for the other side missing from legislation.
I lived for a while in Crandon where another mine issue came to the fore settled only when the tribe bought the land. Now the Back Forty mine across the state line in MI is a threat again.
The govs of both WI and MI depend on tourism dollars which mining would destroy. It is not just about the Indian heritage but about the future.
There should be a fund to help defray the cost of purchasing this endanged land provided by the state. We gain so much by future preservation.

Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Article comment by: Catherine Parker

"Prove It First" is very sensible.
Thank you for the clear explanation, Mr. Noel.

Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Article comment by: Dan Butkus

Mr. Noel makes several excellent points. Cyanide solutions are used for some metal extraction, like gold. For further clarification, some metals like zinc, nickel, and others are concentrated using what is called "ore flotation". Organic compounds are introduced into a slurry of finely ground ore, and the metals bind to the compounds and float to the surface where they are skimmed off for refining. This process produces a large amount of waste water laced with toxic organic compounds.

I have some limited experience with mining companies using ore floatation, having sold the organic chemicals to these mines. Only one mine in my experience was completely contained and had a process to keep ALL mining effluent on-site in lined pits. The mine was a molybdenum mine in Idaho. On three sides it was bordered by National Forest. On the fourth side, a National Heritage Trout River. In this case, the "prove it first" concept seemed to work well. And the mining operations took great effort to contain effluent. But the vast majority do not, and the surrounding area becomes a wasteland.

I agree with Mr. Noel. Relaxing "prove it first" is a mistake. Mines can coexist in areas dependent on tourism and clean lakes. It is difficult but possible. But we clearly see that some are quick to sacrifice one for the other.

Posted: Sunday, September 3, 2017
Article comment by: Tim Behselich

And yet Mr. Tiffany continues to be elected to remain in office. He's also rumored to be in line to replace Kathy Stepp as head of the DNR.

I guess PT Barnum was right.......

Posted: Saturday, September 2, 2017
Article comment by: Craig Strid

If man continues to gain profit at the cost of the lives of his own species and our environment the future of generations to come are threatened. We have to demand truthfulness and full expectations of honest integrity to eliminate such deception that Tom Tiffany reflects in his character. Tranparency not mining is what this politician needs. We need politicians that are sincere about the welfare of this constinuancy. Our constinuancy need not be pawns for greed and profit. This land is our land This is just short of criminal intent.

Craig Strid

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