The hidden danger in the Mining Bill version 2013

Tomorrow, Wednesday January 23 at 9:00 AM, Room 411 South at the Wisconsin State Capitol will be the only scheduled hearing  (for now) on the new Mining Bill.  The hearing takes place before a joint committee, and will undoubtedly be contentious. One of the greatest miscarriages of justice in this process has been the omission of participation, and lack of  recognition of the Bad River Nation and the impact on this legally sovereign entity.

This is intentional, as there is a hidden danger in the new Mining Bill which has received little attention in the press. The result, if this bill is passed, will be a bad law – which is what happens when corporate influence holds outsized sway over a legislative body. The only jobs that will be created if this bill passes will be for attorneys, and rightly so. The current bill has language that will virtually deregulate one of the greatest hazards to freshwater and the Great Lakes – sulfide ore. The passage of this bill could lead to mining activity that would turn surface water into acidic runoff, ruining the environment in one of the greatest freshwater basins on earth.

Senate/Assembly Bill 1, page 3 contains the Legislative Reference Bureau’s analysis of the change in “sulfide ore” regulation:

Current law prohibits DNR from issuing a permit for metallic mining in a sulfide ore body (a mineral deposit in which metals are mixed with sulfide minerals) unless it finds, based on information provided by the applicant, that two conditions are satisfiedUnder the bill, these conditions on issuing a permit for metallic mining in a sulfide ore body do not apply to issuing a permit for iron mining.

The expedited release of sulfide ore deposits into surface water, and the damage it causes has been well documented over several decades:

The acidic discharge and metal-laden leachate from mining activities is known as acid mine drainage (“AMD”)…AMD is one of the most damaging and widespread pollutants associated with the mining industry throughout the world.  As of 1997, over 60 mines or mineral processing plants were on CERCLA’s National Priorities List, indicating contamination so severe that it requires federally-funded cleanup. (S.R. Jennings, D.R. Neuman, and P.S. Blicker (2008). “Acid Mine Drainage and Effects on Fish Health and Ecology: A Review”. Reclamation Research Group Publication, Bozeman, MT for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anhorage Field Office. Available online at

Among some legislators associated with this bill, there is confusion regarding iron ore mining and sulfides. This confusion has been propagated by GTAC, in the hopes of keeping the facts (and legislators) in the dark. Part of the confusion is based on facts regarding iron ore mining:

It is important at the outset to clarify some common confusion surrounding sulfide mining and to distinguish it from other traditional forms of mining in the region. While iron mining has a long history and still continues in the upper Midwest, it does not involve the mining
or disturbance of sulfide ores. Iron is generally mined out of an iron oxide ore, not an iron sulfide ore, and iron oxide ores do not degrade and toxify the same way that sulfide ores do. (Environmental Protection Agency, Region 5, “Great Lakes: Basic Information.”

The Penokee Range Taconite is unique, however. A report issued by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and scientists at Michigan Tech in March, 2012 draws the distinction:

This issue can be confusing because iron sulfides (e.g., pyrite, iron disulfide) are among the most prevalent of sulfide ores, so they are often the leading causes of acid mine drainage (“AMD”) in a sulfide mining operation. This does not, however, mean that iron mines are always associated with sulfurous AMD. In fact, the presence of sulfur in an iron ore is considered a weakening factor, rendering the ore undesirable for iron extraction. Iron sulfides are simply a common byproduct of the extraction of other metals from sulfide ore bodies. 

A taconite mine that disturbs sulfide ore bodies, on the other hand, would present the same hazards as non-ferrous metallic mines. The Gogebic Taconite mine under development in northern Wisconsin is an example of a taconite mine that may disturb sulfide minerals.

A recent article published by The Wisconsin Academy titled “Ironwood: The Rocks of the Penokee Range” confirms and details the unique geological features of the formation:

Figure 2. Block diagram showing the Ironwood Formation and adjacent bedrock layers. The view is looking toward the west (from U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1730)

Geologist Tom Fitz details the composition of the “Tyler Formation;” the large, wedge-shaped layer above the “Iron-Formation” layer (see figure, above).

There is also pyrite present in the Tyler Formation, some of which would end up in the tailings as well. When pulverized and put in contact with oxygen and water at the Earth’s surface, pyrite and other sulfide minerals can undergo chemical reactions that create sulfuric acid. This acid can leach harmful metals and compounds that end up in groundwater and surface water.

It is also possible that sulfate ions released during the weathering of pyrite would affect the growth of wild rice and other elements of the sensitive ecosystem found downstream from the mine. 

 The legislation passed in January 2012 by the Wisconsin State Assembly would have decreased the rigor required in scientific studies regarding potential impacts, making assessment of potential damages difficult. At the same time it would weaken many environmental regulations that protect the Bad River and its tributaries from significant water quality changes.

THAT is the hidden danger in the current Mining Bill. The authors have created a special exception for Iron Mining, taking away the regulations and processes that will protect the surface water and Lake Superior watershed from the harmful sulfides created from extracting iron ore through a heavily pyrite layer. The waste runoff created from destruction and disposal of the sulfide ore will have a longterm impact on regional water quality:

Figure 4. Map of the Bad River Watershed showing the location of the iron ore and the Bad River Reservation

The major corporate entities poised to benefit from the bill have intentionally perpetrated a fraud in this bill, and it endangers the very lifeblood of North Central Wisconsin – the water. The reason? They cannot mine the ore because of the low price of iron, and make millions of dollars in profit unless they are able to pollute the water – and they know it. THAT is why they created this provision in the bill. From the NWF Mining Study cited above:

Wisconsin’s sulfide mining law has perhaps the greatest regulatory scope of any of the
U.S. jurisdictions surveyed…Notably, state agencies are charged with the essential task of completing the environmental review for the project in the application phase, rather than the permittee. Special attention is paid to siting criteria and water quality, and the financial assurance mechanisms are written to ensure that any necessary cleanup will be fully funded by the permittee.

If you wanted to make a quick, multi-million dollar deal on a mine, this is how you would do it.

For the record, this has NOTHING to do with creating jobs. It’s about creating a “boom” economy in North Central Wisconsin, so a few people can make a quick buck.

Who cleans up when the bubble bursts, as it always does?


Sand Mine growth outpaces WI DNR ability, will to monitor and regulate

An email from Wisconsin DNR spokesman William Cosh to Mark Mohr (pg 2 of the document) in the Walker Administration from September 28, 2011 addresses media questions, concern about frac sand mining in West Central Wisconsin:

It’s one thing to measure particulate matter in ambient air, which the DNR does. It is quite another to determine what percentage of particles, of varying size, are composed of crystalline silica…there are no generally accepted methods for monitoring them and no federal or state standards to apply. Nor is there any compelling evidence from health studies to indicate an urgent need for such testing.

  The unprecedented growth of sand mining in West Central Wisconsin over the past year has created a policy crisis for the state and the DNR. The above statement reveals the nature of this policy lapse. First, the lack of effective and accurate measurement, monitoring, and regulation of air quality. Second, the current DNR (and state) administration is ignoring potential future health impact of airborne crystalline silica.

Silica studies done by DNR scientists have been extensive – as the agency had anticipated the boom in sand mining over the past decade. The most extensive study (NR445) was to have been completed under Administrative Rule by July 1, 2006. It was finalized and submitted 5 years late – August 2011. The study specifically cites the shortcomings of current regulatory methods and standards:

A recurring theme from the literature review and survey is that very little conclusive information exists regarding sources, controls or levels of silica present in ambient air. This lack of data means it is not
currently possible to determine conclusively whether or to what extent the quantity, duration or types of silica emissions in the state may be a public health concern. It would take significant additional efforts to fill in these data gaps.

The health risks for crystalline silica under PM4 (the size in microns – millionths of a meter – of most risk to humans) were documented in the report:

The National Toxicology Program Eleventh Report on Carcinogens (2005) states that respirable crystalline silica is “known to be a human carcinogen, based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans, indicating a causal relationship between exposure to respirable crystalline silica and increased lung cancer rates in workers exposed to crystalline silica dust”. In addition, IARC notes that: “Crystalline silica inhaled in the form of quartz or cristobalite from occupational sources [i.e.,
workplace exposures] is carcinogenic to humans,” and is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen (IARC 1997).

The report cites other non-cancerous illnesses as well, including pulmonary, kidney, and silcotuberculosis. Contrary to Cosh’s email to the Walker Administration – there are numerous studies that document effective testing. The problem in our current situation – it is not in practice or widely accepted.

An independent citizens group – “Concerned Chippewa Citizens” conducted its own study monitoring air quality around an operating mine near Chippewa Falls.  The study conducted by Jeff Falk (a trained statistician from Fountain City) raises serious questions about air quality and testing, and acknowledges its own shortcomings – yet the data is consistent and concerning. There are numerous occurrences within a 24 hour period that potentially exceed EPA standards.

Independent studies are being conducted by Dr. Crispin Pierce at UW-Eau Claire on air quality around the sand mines. Dr. Pierce’s study took baseline samples prior to mine operation, and subsequently conducted sample taking after the mine became operational. The study took a “snapshot” of an 8-12 hour period; and according to Dr. Pierce, there was a noted increase in aerosol (particle and airborne) levels. While the study has not yet identified the nature of the “aerosol” particulate – something caused an increase. Dr. Pierce and his colleagues are continuing identification and sampling in the area of the mines.

The DNR is virtually ignoring these independent studies, citing a “flawed” gathering mechanism. The DNR points to the standard it enforces as being sufficient for the current operations. There are several problems with these “standards.” There are exemptions which (under the current “job creation” and customer service mission of state agencies) are relatively loose compared to health consequences. Also, by DNR admission, the air monitoring science and evaluation is insufficient.

Sampling (where applicable) only needs to take place every 6 days at PM10 – in which case you “oversample,” capturing a high amount of irrelevant material. Or PM 2.5 in which case you “undersample”, much of the critical PM 4 particulate escaping. This is important – the ideal sample standard is PM 4. The gathering method and standard for this does not exist. As one DNR official admitted, the mining development moved faster than regulation.

Taking into account the consequences, lack of accurate measurement surrounding air quality and sand mining, and the known health risks involved, the DNR and state should immediately issue a moratorium on sand mining development.

The final issue being completely ignored by the state agency charged with protecting natural resources is this – the sand country of Aldo Leopold is being ravaged, with little to no state regulation of protection of this unique environment. In fact, it is the unique-in-all-the-world that makes this land so valuable, even to the mining companies.

The legacy of this Administration and DNR is being carved out of the sand and earth. It will be years before we know the health and environmental costs. Weighed against how long the jobs will last, and what (if any) other revenue benefit to the region there is – one must ask – is it worth it?

Help keep progressive, independent journalism and research alive…Solidarity!

Conservative “think-tank” Wisconsin Policy Research Institute releases new poll, and puts itself in spin mode

Let the spin begin. The WPRI October poll released by the conservative think-tank Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) is bad news for Scott Walker and the Republicans, and gives recall supporters a clear indication of issues that resonate with voters. But you wouldn’t know it by reading the headline, sub-headline, or the October 30 article itself in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS) online today. The headline of the article – “Gloom Lessens on economy, poll shows“, is followed by “Poll also shows fewer think state is on the wrong track.” Stopping there, as most casual readers do, one would think the recall effort is finished, and the Republicans have succeeded in turning the tide of public opinion. That is exactly what WPRI  wants you to think the poll shows – and exactly why digging deeper into the poll is so important. Something the Journal Sentinel won’t do – but Badger Democracy will.

The MJS report literally “cherry picks” poll results that, at face value, could be considered positive for Scott Walker and the Republicans in the Legislature. Out of over 30 responses given, the article highlights just a few select responses – public perception of Wisconsin’s economic future, attitude about the potential Walker recall, perception of President Obama and National political policies, attitude about Occupy Wall Street versus Tea Party, and perception of Public School performance. The tone of the article would imply that the anger and passion from early spring has waned, and the majority of people are ready to move on. What the MJS, and to a great extent, the WPRI press release on its own poll fails to report, is the bad news for Republicans – and who WPRI is.

WPRI publicizes itself as “non-partisan.” They are not non-partisan, any more than Americans for Prosperity is non-partisan. WPRI was founded in 1987, and is now based in Hartland, WI – Waukesha County. The group believes that “competitive free markets, limited government, private initiative, and personal responsibility are essential to our democratic way of life.”  WPRI funds conservative-friendly research, blogs, radio podcasts, and publishes a quarterly magazine. One of the principle editors for WPRI is conservative Milwaukee radio talk show host Charlie Sykes. Significant benefactors of WPRI include Northwestern Mutual Foundation, Wausau Paper Foundation, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Charlotte & Walter Kohler Charitable Trust, the Lubar Family Foundation, and the Roe Foundation.

In an October 2000 report by Phil Wilayto, it was disclosed that “…in 1997, the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy published a list of 100 conservative organizations, think tanks, institutes and publications that had received the most funding from the 12 largest right-wing foundations for the years 1992 to 1994. The first five were well-known: the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, the Cato Institute and Citizens for a Sound Economy.  Number Six – out of 100 – was the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Between ’92 and ’94, the WPRI received nine grants totaling $3,372,500.00. That was the largest amount given any state conservative think tank, and indicates how important Wisconsin is to the national conservative movement. 4 From its beginning in 1987 through 1998, the Institute received 36 grants totaling $5,158,890 from the John M. Olin and Lynde and Harry Bradley foundations, most of it from Bradley.” 

The omissions from the MJS article are telling. In spite of this conservative bias, the new poll, when contrasted with the March WPRI poll,  shows how much trouble state Republicans are actually in – and demonstrates the inherent Progressive heritage in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Political Environment – First, public opinion on Walker, Republicans, and Democrats. With a margin of error (MoE) of 4 points, public opinion of State Democrats in the Legislature are virtually unchanged since March (50% favorable in March, 48% now – within the MoE; 42% unfavorable in March, 41% now). Scott Walker’s unfavorable rating also is virtually unchanged, in spite of the poll results being 7 months removed from the largest protests (53% unfavorable in March, 56% now; 43% favorable in March, 42% now – all within the MoE). Now the bad news for Legislative Republicans. In March, state GOP lawmakers faced an unfavorable rating of 46%, with a favorable rating of 46% – an even split, with 8% undecided. Now, GOP lawmakers received an unfavorable rating of 52% – a significant increase in 7 months; garnering only a 38% favorable rating, also a large decrease. This indicates a growing disapproval among Wisconsinites for the way the state GOP is legislating, along with continued low ratings for Scott Walker.

When asked if the state was “going in the right direction,” or is “off track,” the response differences in 7 months are significant. In March, 33% felt the state was going in the right direction, while 62% felt it was on the wrong track. Now, 38% feel the state is going in the right direction, while 57% feel it is “off track.”  While this may initially look like good news for Scott Walker, think again. Although more people think the state is moving in the right direction, what does that mean? How do people interpret “right direction?” If Scott Walker’s poll numbers are unchanged, and he is still getting highly unfavorable numbers, that increase must be independent of Walker, as people’s attitudes about him are unchanged – the same is true of the Democrats. The change is in attitudes towards Republicans – they are getting lower ratings than 7 months ago. Since then, GOP Senators have been recalled, there has been a groundswell of grassroots efforts to move back to more Progressive politics, and a date has been set for the Walker recall. There is a noticeable shift occurring in the politics of the state. If one considers the plummeting GOP favorable rating, and the pushback against GOP policies; the perceived movement back to Progressive politics could explain the slight increase in “right direction” response.  People would not respond favorably to the policies of GOP legislators if they rate them so unfavorably – the two are mutually exclusive. They would respond favorably to a percieved shift away from GOP lawmakers and their policies they rate “unfavorable.” Bad news for the GOP.

The next significant numbers in the poll indicate people’s attitudes about the future economy and quality of life – again, bad news for the GOP. Question 19 begins with the statement that the current state budget slows the growth of spending and included cuts in many areas. Do you believe this approach will improve the quality of life, or lead to decline in the quality of life? While the question is softened by framing it as  “lead to decline”, as opposed to “has caused”, or “will cause decline”, the results are significant – a full 53% believe such cuts will “lead to decline” in quality of life, only 41% believe it will improve.

In the MJS article, it was highlighted that fewer people think the economy will “get worse” in the future. That assertion and conclusion requires a little insight. In March, 29% said the economy would “get better”, 36% said “get worse”, 31% “stay the same.” Now, 28% say “get better” (no change), 19% say get worse (decrease), 49% “stay the same (increase). The significance is in the nature of the economy in March as compared to October. The economy HAS gotten worse – including unemployment in Wisconsin rising since March. There is likely a “regression to the mean” which has occurred, as people could be perceiving we have “bottomed out” and a majority believe (or hope), it won’t get worse – thus, “stay the same”. The most significant number is that there are no more people in seven months who see cause for optimism in the economy – the “get better” number is virtually unchanged.

Completely ignored in this corporate media spin on the WPRI poll are the facts – this poll is bad news for a state Republican party clinging to a sinking ship of its own design and destruction. The same poll in March warned Scott Walker and the GOP of public attitudes about their failure to negotiate and acidic tone. They ignored the people, and they now face a storm of public criticism, skepticism, and potential recalls. While these political numbers are telling, the rest of the poll gives recall supporters a good look at what issues resonate with Wisconsinites – and what other issues the GOP is losing ground on.

Tomorrow in Badger Democracy – results on Environmental Regulation, Prisons, Unions, and Public Education.