By an 11-8 margin, the Oneida County Board of Supervisors defeated this week a proposed resolution that would have formally launched a process to prohibit non-ferrous metallic mining on all county-owned land.
Supervisor Alan VanRaalte offered the resolution, which he called an amendment to the county's mining ordinance "to reflect the will of the electorate regarding metallic mining on county-owned land."
That language referred to a referendum last November in which almost 63 percent of the electorate voted "no" on the question of whether the county should lease county-owned lands in the town of Lynne for purposes of exploration, prospecting, bulk sampling, and mining.
VanRaalte's resolution was much broader, however. Specifically, his resolution would have moved the county toward prohibiting all mining-related activities - including exploration, prospecting, bulk sampling, and mining - on all county-owned lands, not just those in the town of Lynne, and it would have prohibited the sale of any county-owned land for the explicit or implicit purpose of mining activities on those lands.
The resolution would not have changed the county code per se. As corporation counsel Brian Desmond pointed out, the resolution, if passed, would have directed the county's zoning committee to draft language to amend the ordinance as specified in the resolution, to hold public hearings on that language, and send the matter back to the county board for approval.
Because of the language of the resolution, Desmond also said the zoning committee would not be able to amend the proposed language sent to it.
In his remarks, VanRaalte urged his colleagues to embrace the sweeping prohibition.
"The resolution is intended to codify the results of the November 2018 referendum," VanRaalte told his fellow supervisors. "When the mining question was put to the electorate then, over 82 percent of Oneida County's eligible voters weighed in on that referendum, and it was 62.59 percent voting no and only 37.41 percent voting yes. That's a landslide by any definition."
VanRaalte said mining of the Lynne deposit would jeopardize more than $285 million in equalized assessed valuation in property that lies downstream of the deposit.
"I would be derelict in my responsibilities to the people of Little Rice and Nokomis, as well as the other citizens of Oneida County who voted no by a large margin in this referendum, if I did not bring this resolution to the full county board for consideration," he said.
VanRaalte said supervisors had a statutory obligation to protect and promote the public health, property values and the property tax base, groundwater resources, wetlands and natural resources, and to be accountable to the electorate.
"While the referendum was advisory only, I believe the people have a right to expect this board to act in accordance of its will, particularly when so many voters expressed their will by such a large margin," he said.
VanRaalte said the resolution would protect ground and surface waters and the public health, and he said it would protect property values and the tax base around the entire county.
"While any future county boards could change or delete either of the provisions offered here, it could not do so without holding public hearings affording the citizens of Oneida County the opportunity to express their positions on the issue," he said.
For much of the past decade, VanRaalte continued, the people living downstream from the Lynne deposit, as well as the tribes, had had to live with the possibility of mining on the horizon, threatening their water resources, their health, their property values, their way of life, and their sacred sites.
"To the extent that state law allows, this needs to end," he said.
Resolution, referendum language two different things
Supervisor Bob Mott said he could not support the resolution as it was written, because it did not reflect the language presented in the referendum.
"If this has Lynne in it specifically, I would vote for it in a minute because that's what the citizens of the county were asked to vote on," Mott said. "What's happening is that you're extending the opinion expressed in that vote to the whole county, and I'm not sure that was true."
Mott said he wished and he thought that he had asked at the time for the referendum to include a second question that would have asked voters whether they wanted to allow metallic mining anywhere on county-owned land.
"That wasn't asked," he said.
Mott said there could be locations in the county where potential mining would not threaten water or other natural resources and society.
"We have to look at those separate areas on an individual basis when they come up," he said. "If Lynne were brought up again, I would vote to not allow mining in Lynne because I think it would have impacted the resources. I would never vote for a lease that would unnecessarily endanger natural resources and that would not have adequate safeguards included."
There may not be adequate safeguards anywhere in the county, Mott said.
"It may be that it's impossible," he said. "But it also may be that there is a select site where people could mine in a responsible way that we could approve. A lot of people don't believe that, but that's my opinion, and, as I said, if it were strictly about Lynne, as the referendum posed, I would vote for the resolution in a minute. But I cannot support it because it includes all county lands."
Supervisor Jim Winkler said he was supportive of the resolution.
"I disagree with supervisor Mott," Winkler said. "I don't think Oneida County has any business doing any kind of metallic mining because of our water resources. We need to protect those at all costs."
Supervisor Robb Jensen wondered what safeguards were now in place to protect the resources if a company made a proposal to mine a specific site.
"Here's my fear," Jensen said. "If I vote no on this resolution, then we are going to assume that supervisor Jensen supports mining in Oneida County. If I vote yes, then I guess [the perception is] I'm opposed to mining in Oneida County. As supervisor Mott said, the vote was on Lynne, and now we are taking that vote on Lynne and saying it should apply to all the county."
Jensens said he thought the county may well have checks and balances in place that would allow the county to continue to evaluate potential projects on a site-specific basis and make a decision.
"It might be that we go back and do a referendum on wherever it is located," he said.
Supervisor Bob Metropulos said the issue had been ongoing ever since he had been on the county board.
"We voted no, we voted no, we voted no, and here we are, after five noes trying to squeeze it out a little here and a little there," Metropulos said. "... It's about time we just close the door to mining. We can say, 'Let's look for that magical piece of land where it's not going to affect anything.' It's not going to happen."
Supervisor Bill Liebert pointed to what he called a political aspect of the issue.
"My voting no on this resolution has no bearing as to my feelings about the protections that we as supervisors have to oversee a balance within the public domain of the interests of the people," Liebert said.
Liebert said he had participated in the audience for 25 or 30 years on various issues.
"I look at this from a wider scope that goes beyond our local county," he said.
There has been a concern on the national level, in the arena of national security, about the nation's ability to gain access to precious metals within our own borders, Liebert said.
"Albeit that's a stretch of the thought that goes beyond our local interests in overseeing what we are doing, and I'm trying to look at the big, big picture of this," he said. "I think we have enough language within our county ordinance currently that there's probably no need to just weld the door shut to any opportunities that might exist in the future. Even if we can amend this in the future, it doesn't make it the right thing to do today."
Supervisor Steve Schreier said evidence of the measurable impacts that mining would have in Oneida County had been presented in informational sessions on the issue. Schreier also said the numbers from the referendum were hard to refute.
"So few people seem to support this [mining], and in many places overwhelmingly oppose it, even in my own wards," he said. "Sometimes it's about being answerable. How do you answer those people and how they voted on this, and I think that's more about what this resolution is than anything."
Schreier said that's why he supported the resolution.
"It's not always about how I feel about something," he said. "It's often going to have to be about how the majority of the people who elected me feel about something."
Supervisor Jack Sorensen agreed that the debate over mining was never-ending.
"In all likelihood at some point in the future, whether it's a couple of years or a hundred years from now, the town of Lynne deposit isn't going anyplace until somebody decides to dig it up," Sorensen said.
Sorensen attributed a quote to a local businessman that, even if the Lynne deposit could be levitated out of the ground with no impact whatsoever, there would be those opposed to doing so, referring to people who will be opposed to mining no matter what.
Sorensen also cited the Eagle mine in Michigan and what he called a successful operation, though he said that project had also been opposed originally by those using similar arguments about mining impacts.
"Believe it or not, the deposit was underneath a river," he said. "Those of us who came to that site saw an operation where the trucks hauling the ore out had their wheels washed before they left the site so nothing would come along with it. It's hard for me to be opposed to mining when we have such innovative ways to do it today, where 100 years ago it was an unmitigated disaster."
The eight supervisors voting to prohibit mining on all county-owned lands were Winkler, VanRaalte, Ted Cushing, Schreier, Greg Pence, Metropulos, Lance Krolczyk, and Bob Almekinder, with Mike Timmons and Scott Holewinski absent.
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