Supporters of Minnesota copper mining often cite the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith in north-central Wisconsin as an example of a mine that can run well, be played out and ultimately be “reclaimed” while not causing significant environmental problems.
While environmental groups cite ongoing issues with runoff at the Flambeau site, including high levels of copper in a small stream in excess of water quality standards, an August U.S. Court of Appeals decision ruled the company is not in violation of its permit. That decision is being interpreted by mining supporters in Minnesota as an example of a copper mine operating and closing without environmental doom predicted by critics.
The small Wisconsin deposit, discovered in 1969, was mined along the Flambeau River between 1993 and 1997, producing 181,000 tons of copper, 334,000 ounces of gold and 3.3 million ounces of silver.
“Yes, copper, nickel and other much needed metal production can and has been done safely and successfully, without polluting local waters,” the industry group Mining Minnesota notes in a recent publication. The Flambeau mine is “a great example of this success … and has since been closed and reclaimed in full compliance with Wisconsin laws.”
Mining Minnesota said the recent federal Court of Appeals decision demonstrates “that the right company doing the right things in compliance with the right standards can produce the materials society needs safely and responsibly.”
But critics of any copper mine that requires perpetual treatment say there are far more examples of copper mines that have gone horribly bad, often after the company has left town, leaving residents and taxpayers to foot the cleanup bill.
For most of the 20th century, until 1993, a Canadian company operated the Formosa copper and zinc mine near Riddle, Ore. The company abandoned the site in 1994. Within a few years, the mitigation system left behind intended to contain polluted runoff began to fail. State officials said that, since then, 18 miles of river have been heavily polluted by copper, cadmium, lead and zinc that “severely harmed the ecosystem of these streams, including protected coho and steelhead salmon populations.”
The Formosa mine became a federal Superfund priority site in 2007, ranking it among the worst polluted sites in the nation.
“This isn’t ancient history. Those impacts are still occurring at those mines,” said Betsy Daub of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. “Imagine if 18 miles of Minnesota waters got hit like that.”
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