Dear Readers;

The following newspaper article appeared in the Feb. 7, 1991 issue of The County Journal. I wrote it at the beginning of mining operations in Ladysmith by Kennecot Copper Corporation (a.k.a. Flambeau Mining Corporation).

Looking back from the perspective of 2019, here is the upshot of the now extinct Flambeau Mine.

The Ladysmith Mine produced $132 million in gold, $16.5 million in silver, and $400 million in copper for a total of $548 million dollars. 

James Richard Bailey




Far from a silent spring


What's all the mining hoopla?


By James R. Bailey

This year, along with ice-out and the blooming of the trilliums, there will be a new signal that spring has arrived in northern Wisconsin.

Residents of Ladysmith will witness blasting and the rumble of mammoth dozers as excavation begins on a thirty-two acre open pit copper mine near the Flambeau River.

The final approval to begin operations was granted January 14 by David Schwarz, administrator of the State Division of Hearings and Appeals. This came after a fourteen year-long legal battle between Kennecot Copper Corporation and a coalition of local residents and environmental groups.

The announcement was big news. It was the top headline in the January 16 Milwaukee Journal, placed above the failure of U.S./Iraq last minute "peace talks."

What is all the fuss about? A few moments spent studying the ancient geology of Wisconsin may help.

Some 1.8 billion years ago this area was covered by an ocean. Up through its floor volcanic eruptions brought iron, copper, uranium, vanadium, gold, silver, and zinc, as well as trace elements of heavy metals, toxins like arsenic, cadmium and chromium.

Unfortunately, these same eruptions also brought up large amounts of sulfur. The underlying bedrock in much of northern Wisconsin is a sulfur-bearing volcanic structure.

As long as they remain underground, the sulfur, arsenic and other elements do not often enter into the water table. With the exception of cracks and seeps, sulfur pollution is not a problem.

When brought to the surface, however, sulfur combines with oxygen and water to form sulfuric acid. The acid has a great capacity to dissolve toxins and carcinogens, allowing them to find their way into the water table.

This is not startling news to anyone. The mining companies know it, and the environmentalists know it. We've all heard of acid rain, and we're well aware of its effects on the environment.

But, as the Bureau of Mines is quick to point out, we are a nation of consumers. Their statistics state that "Each year, the average American needs 40,000 pounds of new minerals. During his or her lifetime, the average newborn baby will need

  • 1,050 pounds of lead

  • 1,050 pounds of zinc

  • 1,750 pounds of copper

  • 4,550 pounds of aluminum

  • 91,000 pounds of iron/steel

  • 360,500 pounds of coal

  • over a million pounds of stone, sand, gravel, cement and clay"

Mining proponents say that all of this has to come from somewhere. In the past, much of the metallic minerals have come from third world countries where there are few environmental restrictions, and where natives will work for a fraction of the pay demanded by workers in the industrialized nations.

Things have changed. Political stability is waning in Africa, South America and elsewhere. Easily accessible deposits are being used up. Transportation costs are rising.

Equally important, world market prices are rising. The value of copper ore doubled in the late 1980s. This means that ore bodies that were too expensive to mine previously have now become worth extracting.

Northern Wisconsin is one big ore body. "The list of companies competing for a share of the area's resources reads like a Who's Who of the international mining industry: Exxon, Kennecott, Amax, Kerr-McGee, Noranda, Chevron, Amoco and Western Nuclear," according to Al Gedicks, director of the Center For Alternative Mining Development Policy. "Taken together, these companies have leased the mineral rights to more than 500,000 acres in the northern two-thirds of Wisconsin."

Gedicks also points out that the geology of the Lake Superior region is similar to Canadian and South African areas where rich uranium deposits have been mined.

Not surprisingly, Kennecott Copper is owned by Noranda, Inc. A Canadian company, Noranda ranks sixth in terms of profits in that country. They are major players in minerals, forest products, manufacturing and energy.

Noranda, the company that owns Kennecott (which, in turn, owns Flambeau Mining Company) has since the mid-1950s operated the Elliot Lake uranium mines in Ontario. They are blamed by environmentalists for poisoning a seventy-five mile stretch of the Serpent River basin.

"In the 1960s, it was recognized that environmental mistakes had been made in the rush to feed nuclear power," admits geologist Julie Anderson of Noranda Explorations, Inc. "Today, however, those mistakes would not occur and the environmental repairs have been made and continue to be made."

This may be true, but among the variances granted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to Kennecott is exemption from the rule requiring them to monitor baseline water quality for radioactivity.

This means that they don't have to test the water for radioactivity before they start, as required by WDNR rules. If the public can't document how radioactive the ground water was before mining operations started, they cannot prove that it has become thusly contaminated.

The mine pit itself will come within 140 feet of the Flambeau River. This also required a variance from the minimum of 300 feet specified in the rules.

All together, Kennecott requested and got six such variances from meaningful sections of DNR rules.

Yes, the mine in Ladysmith will yield copper. It is one of the richest deposits in existence. Their permit specifically allows for the mining of uranium too, despite denial of any such interest by Kennecott. The lode also contains gold, another entire topic.

The story as related here thus far is only the tip of the iceberg. Closer to home is the Round Lake vanadium/titanium deposit in Sawyer County, the largest in North America. It is owned by Union Carbide.

Then there is the zinc deposit near the Wolf River at Crandon, Wisconsin. Said by the U.S. Department of the Interior to be the richest in the world, it is owned by Exxon.

According to a Wisconsin Department of Revenue study, "there is potential over the next twenty years for development of about ten mines in northern Wisconsin . . . [and] the possibility that a smelter may be built."

We will, in forthcoming articles, recount the legal maneuverings by both sides of the dispute. We will also investigate the environmental background of the mining companies, the treaty-rights connection, the local and regional efforts to halt mining and more.


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