Exxon Mine Menaces Wisconsin

— Al Gedicks and Zoltan Grossman

IN 1975, Texas-based Exxon Minerals Co. discovered one of the world’s largest zinc-copper sulphide deposits (with traces of lead, silver and gold), 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 a decade of strong local opposition, Exxon withdrew from the project in 1986, but returned in February 1994 to announce its intention to mine with a new partner – Canada-based Rio Algom – in their new “Crandon Mining Co.”

The mine would disrupt far beyond its surface area of 866 acres (about one-tenth of which is wetlands). Over its lifetime the mine would generate an estimated 60 million tons of acidic wastes – the weight of twelve Great Pyramids of Egypt. When metallic sulphide wastes make 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.

Threat to Native Peoples

The planned mine lies on territory ceded by the Chippewa Nation to the United States in 1842, and directly on a twelve-square-mile tract promised to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa in 1855. Treaties guaranteed Chippewa access to wild rice, fish and some wild game on ceded lands.

The people of the Mole Lake Reservation (formed in 1934) are among the prime harvesters of wild rice in Wisconsin. Swamp Creek flows directly from the mine site into the wild rice beds in Rice Lake, inside the reservation boundaries. Though wild rice is central to the Sokaogon Chippewa culture, one Exxon biologist called it “those lake weeds.”

In addition the nearby Menominee, Potawatomi and Stockbridge-Munsee nations would be severely affected by the mine pollution and the social upheaval brought by new outsiders. With Mole Lake they have formed the Nii Win Intertribal Council (Nii Win is Ojibwe for “four”), which in turn is working in alliance with environmental and fishing groups within a campaign called WATER (Watershed Alliance Toward Environmental Responsibility).

The Wisconsin conflict over treaty rights pitted Chippewas against some white fishermen over natural resources from 1985 until 1992. Now the mining conflict finds Native Americans and some non-Indian fishing groups on the same side. Nii Win’s resolve against “environmental racism” may help preserve waterways for Indians and non-Indians alike.

Exxon’s El Cerrejon mine in a Guajira Indian region of Colombia put it on the Survival International list of the Top Ten corporate violators of Native rights. The vice-president of operations at El Cerrejon was Jerry Goodrich<197>now president of Crandon Mining Co.

Exxon’s Canadian partner Rio Algom is best known worldwide for its disastrous Elliot Lake uranium mines in Ontario, which poisoned fish and other aquatic life in the Serpent River. The Canadian government fined it for spreading high-level radioactivity in waterways; a nearby Ojibwa (Chippewa) reservation curtailed its fishing due to chronic diseases, fetal deaths and birth abnormalities.

Effects on the Environment

Half the projected mine waste is rocky “coarse tailings,” which would be dumped to fill the mine shafts. The other half is powdery “fine tailings,” which would be dumped into a waste pond about 90 feet deep, covering 365 acres.

To control leakage, Exxon plans to line the pond with only eight inches of a bentonite clay mix. Exxon’s own geologist admitted that “contamination is bound to occur no matter how wisely a mine is designed.” The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says that in nearby creeks sulphate levels would rise fivefold, lead and arsenic levels threefold. Such wastes are poisonous for centuries.

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. Wastewater would be constantly pumped out of the shafts, “drawing down” water levels in a four-square-mile area. “Dewatering” could lower lakes by several feet, and dry up wells and springs.

The wastewater would be dumped at an average rate of over 200 gallons a minute into trout-rich streams draining into the nearby Wolf River. The Wolf is a state Outstanding Resource Water (ORW) – allowing no degradation of its pristine quality – and its lower half is protected as a National Wild and Scenic River.

The state’s largest whitewater trout stream, the Wolf, flows through the Menominee reservation. Trout Unlimited’s Wolf River chapter says that “the mine as proposed would be a serious threat to the Wolf River as a trout stream.” The U.S. Bureau of Mines says that mine wastes have poisoned 10,000 miles of rivers.

Economic Impact

The economic effects of mining have been compared to drugs – a false high, followed by a terrible crash. This cycle has ruined local economies from Appalachia to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. USA Today reports that six of the ten U.S. counties with the largest population losses have gone through mining busts.

Mining supporters say that a mine brings in new tax revenues. Yet Wisconsin’s mining tax (and environmental law) is full of loopholes, due to efforts led by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) and state Administration Secretary James Klauser – himself a former Exxon lobbyist. If the Mole Lake mine doesn’t make a profit, there would be no taxes to pay. Unlike its Exxon parent firm, Exxon Minerals operated at a loss every year, at least between 1971-1984.

The Mole Lake Council, by ripping up a $20,000 Exxon check that would have bought reservation mineral rights, showed that their land is more precious than greed. Tribal judge Fred Ackley says, “If they go ahead with their mine, our tribe is going to be devastated.”

“We like where we’re living,” tribal member Myra Tuckwab states. “Now that we’re here, they discover something and they either want to take it from us or move us away from it...This is where I belong. This is where my roots are and this is where I’m gonna stay.”

ATC 50, May-June 1994