Foreign mining companies, and the politicians they lavish with contributions, tell us sulfide mines — which bring copper, zinc and gold to market — bring jobs, too. They tell us sulfide mines that generate toxic byproducts like cyanide and sulfuric acid are safe for our communities.
They are not telling the truth and that’s precisely why we need to continue existing protections from dangerous pollution that makes these mines, effectively, “acid mines.” Wisconsin’s bipartisan “Prove It First” law requires a mining interest to demonstrate a similar project has operated and closed for 10 years without polluting before a new project is approved. To date, no project has met this standard.
Not surprisingly, some foreign investors would like to lower the bar to boost their business. Thousands of River Alliance of Wisconsin members — small business owners, individuals and more than 80 watershed protection groups across the state — feel differently. Our existing protections have kept us safe for 20 years and need to stay.
State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and industry lobbyists promote the so-called “Mining for America” bill (SB 395) as a major economic opportunity for Wisconsin. They use the Flambeau mine in Ladysmith, which operated from 1993-1997, as a shining example of acid mining success.
In a tweet on Aug. 24, Tiffany claimed the Flambeau mine “created or retained 450 jobs.” This statement conflicts with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website which states the project only “employed approximately 70 employees.”
It’s not the first time mining proponents have made assertions that are as big and bold as they are wrong. In 1991, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce’s then-President Jim Hanley said the Flambeau project would bring an “economic boost some of our counties need to ensure the future of our children.”
Yet, Rusk County, the site of the Flambeau mine, had the highest unemployment rate in Wisconsin during the years the mine operated (1993-1997) per the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The number of children living in poverty went up in Rusk County during the mining years.
Though the citizens of Rusk County were told that a mine would improve their fortunes, the county’s annual per capita income, relative to the other counties in the state, decreased during the years Flambeau operated. Numbers compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show that the unemployment rate in Rusk County is lower now (3.8 percent in July 2017) than at any point during the Flambeau mine’s operation.
The truth is, scant evidence exists — in Ladysmith and beyond — of lasting economic benefits to communities with acid mines. On the other hand, there is plenty of reason to worry that new acid mines pose significant and near-permanent risks to existing businesses and the communities they serve.
Let’s be very clear: no acid mine in a water-rich area has NOT polluted. Ever. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the acid mining industry is the most toxic industry in America. In fact, the Flambeau mine itself continues to pollute, 20 years after active mining ceased. Despite the best attempts of the Flambeau Mining Co. to address numerous pollution concerns, a federal judge found it guilty of 11 counts of contaminating the surface waters flowing into the Flambeau in 2012, violating the Clean Water Act.
Pollution from acid mines jeopardizes the health of people and businesses who rely on clean water. Acid drainage impacts surface water near a mine site and pollution quickly enters the local groundwater system. That means, toxins from acid mining endanger every person, every business and every community local waters touch.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin is home to about 4,000 (seasonally adjusted) “mining, logging and construction” jobs; far less than the nearly 285,000 “leisure and hospitality” jobs that support the local tourism industry. Mines that pollute local resources to profit foreign investors risk local businesses that sustain local communities. Risks are even more pronounced near proposed acid mine sites in Taylor and Marathon counties, which have vibrant agricultural economies.
Would you sacrifice local businesses and water quality to profit mining companies who can legitimately promise relatively few jobs? Most of Wisconsin would not. An August 2017 poll showed that 72 percent of Wisconsin voters want to keep existing “Prove it First” protections from mining pollution.
Citizens across the state are not buying what Tiffany and mining lobbyists are selling in their acid mining bill. For the good of our state, the Legislature should bury this risky and wrongheaded attempt to sell out Wisconsin waters and Wisconsin communities.
Raj Shukla is executive director of River Alliance of Wisconsin, a statewide organization that empowers people to protect and restore water.