By Laura Green, Clean Wisconsin volunteer
The prospect of proposed changes to Wisconsin’s mining legislation has recreationalists, environmentalists, and people in mining communities worried, to say the least. Despite mining industry claims that any mining operation would have minimal impact on the land, those in favor of maintaining current Wisconsin mining regulations have reason to worry.
One doesn’t have to look far to see why. Our neighbor Michigan has a long history of mining, leading up to plenty of environmental damage that Wisconsin should pay attention to. A potential danger of mining is acid mine drainage, where sulfides in mining waste rock mix with water and air to create sulfuric acid. Acid mine drainage caused problems at the Dober mine, an iron ore mine in the Marquette mountain range in the U.P. Drainage from the mine killed aquatic life in the Iron River as far as seven miles downstream from the mining operation in 1973. Pollution from Upper Peninsula mines has even affected Wisconsin. A 1980 Wisconsin State Journal article reported that Wisconsin sued Michigan after water flowing from Michigan rivers carried pollution 25 miles from abandoned mines, across state lines.
Selenium from two other U.P. iron mines, the Empire and the Tilden, leached into nearby waters. In 2009, the Michigan DNR found elevated levels of selenium in Goose Lake. According to an expert at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, selenium found near mining waste rock was thought to be the culprit of the contamination. Evidence of contamination was found in six area lakes and streams in addition to Goose Lake. selenium can damage fish populations and, if levels are high enough, harm humans who eat fish from contaminated lakes. Runoff from the mines led to fish advisories at Goose Lake.
Environmental damage from mining has significant economic consequences too. In the late 1990s, Michigan sued the Dober mine for polluting the Iron River. The state had to install a water treatment system to deal with acid draining into Iron River, for a total cost of $360,000. The government reports spending over $66,000 in 2009 to clean up contamination in the Iron River caused by the Dober mine. In 2010, the state reached a settlement with the Empire and Tilden mines for permit violations after the two mines discharged waste rock in unauthorized areas. The companies running these mines paid a $51,000 fine and also had to cover the cost of the government investigation (more than $4,000).
At the time of the settlement, the Empire and Tilden mining companies had spent $8.4 million on clean up and fixing pipelines to prevent toxic discharges from continuing to happen. Starting in December 2011, the Empire mine was also required to clean up the selenium contamination that polluted Goose Lake.
Then there is the Buck mine, an iron ore mine that opened in 1922. As of 2009, the government listed cumulative spending on the Buck mine at an impressive $3,662,090.
Wisconsin currently has strong mining legislation when it comes to environmental protection. Michigan has mining legislation too, though it is under this legislation that the environmental problems occurred with the Dober, Empire and Tilden mines. Michigan mining regulations require all companies to have a permit and submit an environmental impact statement. Before obtaining a permit, a mining company must submit a reclamation plan. The reclamation plan must include “Provisions for grading, revegetation, and stabilization that will minimize soil erosion, sedimentation, and public safety concerns.” Once a complete permit application is submitted, the government then has a mere 60 days to approve or deny the permit.
While a mining operation must submit a reclamation plan, the legislation only requires an environmental plan for the operation of the mine “upon request of the supervisor.” This plan would include a description of the mining area and any measures taken to prevent pollution and erosion. Interestingly, this piece of the legislation states that if the plan is based on “unknown factors,” the plan can be revised and re-submitted.
Michigan’s legislation does little to make the “unknown” known. For example, one expert in Michigan was concerned that a study of the groundwater in the area was not required before the start-up of a mining operation. Without being required to first study the area, a mining operation might not know they are dealing with sulfide-containing rock until they start extraction. By then, it would be too late to prevent problems like acid mine drainage. However, current Wisconsin regulations protect against this danger.
During the debate over mining legislation, many argued that we need to make our mining laws more in tune with our neighbors in Michigan and Minnesota; the high number of environmental problems stemming from Michigan mines cautions against this. Maintaining strong mining legislation in Wisconsin means protecting our land and water from the potentially disastrous effects of mining done wrong.