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?

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