Welcome to Oneida County Clean Waters Action
Exploring the issues that affect our rivers, lakes and ground water.
Exploring the issues that affect our rivers, lakes and ground water.
OCCWA advocates non-partisan responsible representation at the local and state government levels for protecting our greatest in the Northwoods: our pristine waters, wetlands, forests and clean air.
This OCCWA website serves as your resource for news about environmental issues that impact Oneida County in northern Wisconsin.
By Eric Rempala September 13, 2023- Recent WDNR testing of Rhinelander's paper mill sludge are in and the results are promising. As we stated in a previous article, Ahlstrom Munksjo who provided the sludge sample, acquired the mill several years ago and may not be responsible for the PFAS issue in Stella. As originally suspected by residents, but not yet determined by the DNR, the PFAS issue in Stella could well be a legacy pollution issue stemming back to previous mill owners. To be clear, there has been no determination of the PFAS source by the DNR as of yet.
OCCWA found the test results Ahlstrom Munksjo PFAS Sludge Sample Set Report (wisconsin.gov) a bit confusing, so we contacted the DNR for clarification. Provided is the DNR response.
"The PFOS results are the results listed under Perfluoro-n-octane sulfonic acid (1.67 ng/g). PFOA results are those listed under Perfluoro-n-octanoic acid (0.342 ng/g).
There are currently no limits in state or federal code pertaining to biosolids for any PFAS chemicals for the Department to compare the results to. The Department does have an Interim Strategy for Land Application of Biosolids Containing PFAS (https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/sites/default/files/topic/PFAS/PFAS_BiosolidsInterimStrategy.pdf). This document is intended to assist municipal Wastewater Treatment Facilities in making decisions in how they handle biosolids containing PFAS (specifically PFOS and PFOA) based on the best information the Department has at this time. While the Ahlstrom paper mill sludge is regulated as an industrial sludge under ch. NR 214, Wis. Adm. Code as opposed to municipal biosolids which are regulated under ch. NR 204, Wis. Adm. Code, you can see that the concentration of PFOS and PFOA would not result in any suggested restrictions in land application.
Michigan has collected a lot of data on PFAS concentrations in municipal biosolids. They found the median PFOS concentration of all 162 WWTPs they sampled was 8.25 ppb and the average was 14.39 ppb. The Ahlstrom sample had a PFOS concentration of 1.67 ppb which is significantly below the median and average. Ahlstrom has indicated on its website that it has switched to a fluorine free product. The Department is not aware of when this change occurred. The Department is not aware of and has not been provided any PFAS results from samples taken before this recent sample which the Department collected.
The EPA is currently developing a risk assessment to better understand the potential public health and ecological risks associated with PFAS in land-applied biosolids. This information will be used by the department and EPA to inform decisions on the need to regulate biosolids."
I would be remiss at this time to not acknowledge the DNR for their quick response as well as their professionalism in answering all questions posed by OCCWA.
One point to clarify from the DNR statement. It appears Michigan has been way ahead of Wisconsin on PFAS testing, taking positive action as far back as 2021. Land Application of Biosolids Containing PFAS Interim Strategy (michigan.gov) Are our Wisconsin legislators not as interested in protecting water quality as Michigan's? Let's hope not, but it's a legitimate question as our local legislators have in the past opposed public opinion on mining as well as Pelican River Forest.
A couple of points to be considered going forward. Where did the PFAS contamination come from? If the contamination in fact came from past mill spreading, where else was that sludge spread and what other towns may be affected? What is Oneida County's responsibility pertaining to this issue? Well hopefully the last question will be addressed soon, as the Oneida County Board of Health Committee has chosen to add the PFAS discussion to their October 16th meeting agenda. See Kathleen Coopers update article below for more details. Job well done Kathleen and compliments to the Oneida County Board of Health Committee for their consideration.
Update By Kathleen Cooper September 13, 2023- Eric Rempala and Kathleen Cooper attended the Oneida County Board of Health Committee meeting on September 12 to urge this committee to become more involved in the widespread PFAS problem in Oneida County. The Town of Stella appears to be the hardest hit, but it has also caused Rhinelander city wells to be shut down. The full extent of the problem in Oneida County is not yet known, but PFAS is suspected to be more prevalent than we know at this point in time.
There have been various resolutions passed in Ashland, Kenosha, and Marinette Counties urging the DNR to dedicate time and resources to enforce PFAS standards. In Douglas County, a resolution was passed unanimously to require the testing of any sludge that is spread on their fields. This resolution was used as an example for the Board of Health to model an Oneida County resolution.
This item was well received by the Board of Health and was placed on the agenda for the October 16 meeting. It is a first step in minimizing any more contamination of our soil and water. The public can help by contacting their County Board supervisors and expressing their support of this potential resolution.
WPR coverage by Danielle Kaeding including Douglas County Resolution link- DNR Offers To Test Municipal Sewage Sludge For PFAS » Urban Milwaukee
WPR excerpt- "In the meantime, northern Wisconsin leaders are concerned PFAS contamination could stem from spreading biosolids on farm fields. Douglas and Bayfield counties passed resolutions this spring that seek to require PFAS testing of all sewage sludge spread on lands in Wisconsin."
By Kathleen Cooper August 29, 2023- I was at a town meeting in Stella last month, and we have a public health emergency on our hands. I looked at the faces of the people of Stella while the DNR was telling them of the PFAS levels in their wells, lakes, and waterways, and I saw shock, disbelief, fear, and hopelessness. The DNR has no clear answers for these people, no certainty that their water will ever be safe to drink. Home filtration systems, (only if the PFAS level is under 200 parts per trillion, and many were much higher) or drilling new wells are the only options open to them. These options still don’t guarantee clean water.
What happened in Stella could happen to any of us, maybe is already happening to us. It is not an isolated incident. It is happening all over the state, from Rhinelander, to Menominee, to Wausau, and many other municipalities. The contamination has drained into other waterways, like the Pelican River, and the Wisconsin River from the contaminated lakes and streams in Stella.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that are used in a variety of products, ranging from firefighting foam to Teflon and other non-stick substances, paper and cardboard wrappers for fast food and bakery goods, stain resistant furniture and carpets, clothes, and even in personal care products and cosmetics. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment, and build up in fish, wildlife, and human beings. PFAS affects growth and development in humans, and is linked to testicular, kidney, liver, and pancreatic cancer, reproductive problems, weakened childhood immunity, low birth weight, endocrine disruption, increased cholesterol, and weight gain in children and dieting adults.
Some PFAS chemicals (the “long chain” variety) have been phased out but have now been replaced with similar “short chain” replacements, which the FDA has recklessly allowed. The new chemicals may pose even worse risks than the long chains, which supports scientists’ growing agreement that the entire class of PFAS are hazardous. Unreleased federal data suggest that up to 110 million Americans could have PFAS-contaminated drinking water. It continues to be discharged into the environment, because there are currently no restrictions on industrial PFAS discharges under the federal Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act. Not only has manufacturing discharged PFAS into the environment, but the military has used firefighting foam containing PFAS for decades and is fighting efforts to clean up legacy pollution. The EPA has failed to set a legal limit for any PFAS in tap water, and its non-enforceable health advisory level for PFAS is 70 times higher than what independent studies show is needed.
The cause of the PFAS contamination in Stella has not been proven as of yet, but it is suspected that decades of sludge spreading on local fields from the papermill, and that of biosolids from the wastewater treatment plant may be the culprits. There is also PFAS contamination in the City of Rhinelander It is suspected that the firefighting foam from the Rhinelander airport may have played a role. Nothing has been determined conclusively, partly because testing for PFAS in the sludge and biosolids is voluntary, and the entities who caused the problem do not want to be responsible for cleaning it up. Ahlstrom Munksjo, the owner of the paper mill in Rhinelander, has consented to testing, with no results back at this time.
The people in Stella who are affected have been given bottled drinking water, and have been offered monetary help to install new filtration systems or drill wells. The amount of money offered is less than what is needed, but it helps. The manufacturers and others suspected of causing the problem, as well as our state senator, do not want to “place blame” and expect it to be cleaned up with taxpayer money.
Other Wisconsin counties such as Douglas County and Ashland counties, have proposed resolutions to stop the spreading of sludge and biomass in their fields. Oneida County continues to ignore the problem, and has done nothing, not even showing up in Stella for informational meetings. The problem continues, with no end in sight, no regulation, and no solutions. The DNR is still allowing sludge spreading in six area fields. Meanwhile the people in Stella are receiving bottled drinking water, but not much else.
Here is an article documenting some of Marinette and Peshtigo's PFAS consequences. 'The Middle of a Massive Contamination': Marinette and Peshtigo Residents Struggle with Aftereffects of PFAS (pbswisconsin.org) Both towns are four years beyond their initial PFAS contamination discovery.
By Eric Rempala August 29, 2023-OCCWA recently presented an updated Sulfide Mining Resolution to the town of Schoepke at their August board meeting. The updated resolution by Karl Fate which has slight changes from his original resolution still reflects the same purpose. The basic intent of both resolutions is to call for the repeal of Wisconsin ACT 134 which among other things eliminated the extremely popular Prove It First Law.
We are happy to report that the Schoepke Town Board unanimously approved the resolution joining the nine towns of Cassian, Crescent, Lake Tomahawk, Lynne, Newbold, Nokomis, Pelican, Pine Lake, Stella, plus the city of Rhinelander in opposition of ACT 134. Just to be clear, there is no need for towns who passed the previous resolution to consider the updated one as both resolutions call for the same repeal.
I would be remiss at this time if I did not express our appreciation to the town of Schoepke. The board meeting was exceptionally well run, with a large number of residents attending. Having attended many town meetings, I can say it was a pleasure seeing such an engaged audience as well as a board willing to solicit public input.
OCCWA will continue soliciting towns on this mining issue going forward, hoping to gain a larger majority of Oneida County town support. Clearly, the towns already on board represent more than 50% of the county's population. Potential September visits of towns not yet onboard are Woodboro, Three Lakes, Piehl, Woodruff. If you are a resident of one of these towns and would like Karl Fates latest resolution added to your towns upcoming agenda, please contact your town and request it.
Karl Fates updated mining resolution.
Sulfide Mining Resolution
Whereas, Oneida County is an extremely water rich part of Wisconsin, with over 1,100 lakes, and with nearly 38% of its surface comprised of lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands, totaling over 463 square miles, and
Whereas, there are three known sulfide deposits in Oneida County that are associated with ancient rock formations of volcanic origin, and
Whereas, sulfide deposits contain minerals that are compounds of metal and sulfur, and the process of mining these deposits creates an enormous amount of waste material, when exposed to air and water, create a condition, know as Acid Mine Drainage, that leaches metals from the surrounding environment, and remain a threat to the water resource for hundreds of years, and
Whereas, in Oneida County, these ancient deposits were buried under thick layers of glacial drift and water when the Glaciers receded, and
Whereas, our lakes, streams, and wetlands are intimately connected to the water contained in this glacial material, and In order to keep a sulfide mining operation reasonably dry, the pumping required would reduce lake and water well levels, reduce stream flows, and impair wetland function, and
Whereas, more than 62% of Oneida County voters opposed a sulfide mine upstream of the Willow Flowage, which is of great County, Tribal, and regional significance, and
Whereas, GreenLight Metals controls the Lobo Deposit and the Black Property in the Town of Schoepke, and is proposing to conduct exploratory drillings in areas north and west of Lucille Lake near the upper Wolf River, which is also of great County, Tribal, and regional significance, and
Whereas, the water resources of Oneida County are of profound importance, providing many people that live and work here with sustenance for many generations from our incredible fisheries, and many others that benefit economically from the folks that come from far and wide to enjoy the scenic beauty of the Northwoods, and
Whereas, the repeal of the Mining Moratorium Law, known as Act 134, eliminates the “Prove it first” provision from the metallic mining law, and also makes groundwater standards non-applicable in certain areas, weakens wetland protections, streamlines approval of bulk sampling, shortens the timeline for review of mine permits, weakens the criteria for the approval of high capacity wells, weakens the public process for the approval of mine permits, eliminates solid waste disposal fees, limits the timeframe for predictive modeling, and limits the timeframe to maintain an irrevocable trust for preventative and remedial activities, and
Whereas, the future of Oneida County depends on keeping our water clean and protecting our lakes, streams, and wetlands.
Now therefore be it resolved that the following Towns, Lake Associations, and Sportfishing groups consider Sulfide Mining to be incompatible with the goals stated above and ask the Wisconsin State Legislature to repeal Wisconsin 2017 Act 134 and replace it with the former Law, subject to thorough public review and amendment.
By Eric Rempala August 25, 2023- OCCWA would like to share a link to the Wisconsin DNR's Interim Strategy for Land Application of Biosolids (Sludge) Containing PFAS dated September of 2021. Interim Strategy for Land Application of Biosolids Containing PFAS (wisconsin.gov) Here is an excerpt from said document.
" 3.0 Proposed Interim Strategy for Land Application of Biosolids Until a fully vetted, risk-based assessment is completed for PFAS in biosolids, similar to other states DNR is implementing the following strategy to assist WWTFs and landowners/farmers who make decisions relating to land application of biosolids with detectable concentrations of PFAS. Note, the department expects that this interim strategy be used in conjunction with the requirements of NR 204, Wis. Adm. Code.
The strategy primarily focuses on three-parts for success: • PFAS Biosolids Sampling. Sample and analyze biosolids suspected to be impacted by PFAS prior to land application.
• PFAS Source Identification and Reduction. PFAS analytical results from biosolids sampling will dictate the level of source identification and reduction efforts. Note, while PFAS sources are often associated with industrial manufacturing, other sources, including a variety of commercial businesses, have the potential to substantially contribute PFAS loading to WWTFs.
• Farmer and Landowner Communication. It is important that PFAS concentrations in biosolids and source reduction efforts are communicated with the landowner and/or farmer receiving the biosolids. DNR will assist in providing analytical information and additional educational resources specific to PFAS in biosolids in Wisconsin."
So, this document is what the DNR is using for monitoring and testing of sludge applications until a more permanent testing process is put in place. The testing of the Rhinelander paper mill sludge which the DNR referenced in their August 15th meeting with the town of Stella falls under this document. We would recommend anyone wishing to get a better understanding of the spreading of sludge in Wisconsin review the entire link provided above (approximately 8 pages).
Another excerpt from the cited document is " Because there are potentially many sources of PFAS within biosolids, source identification is necessary to ensure biosolids are protected from industrial and commercial contamination. Common industrial sources of PFAS include metal finishers, landfills (leachate), paper manufacturing, mixed manufacturing, paint manufacturing, leather tannery facilities, commercial industrial laundries, chemical manufacturers, centralized waste treaters, and a variety of miscellaneous sources. Aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used as fire-fighting foam can also have lingering impacts as a source of PFAS as residuals within sewers or from infiltration into the sewer collection system.
For small WWTFs, small commercial operations including operations that appear innocuous, such as floor mat cleaning, commercial laundries and truck washes, may be PFAS sources and identified as potentially impacting PFAS concentrations in biosolids.
The department is eager to partner with any WWTF operators wanting to establish a PFAS source identification and reduction program and stands ready to assist if requested."
In the Stella January meeting it was brought to the DNR's attention by local residents, that they felt their PFAS issues were due to land spreading. At this point the DNR seems to be directing their investigation in that direction. Identifying the source of the PFAS is the first step in stopping the continuation of the contamination.
If you require more reason for concern from paper mill sludge, reference this Portland Press Herald article dated July of 2021. Trail of ‘forever chemicals’ leads to Maine paper mills (pressherald.com)
Article excerpt provided,
" Paper mills have used a lot of PFAS – and in some cases still do – in the coatings that keep grease or liquids from soaking through picnic plates, takeout food containers, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers."
“They have legacy use of PFAS, almost certainly,” said John Gardella, an attorney at CBMG3 Law in Boston who specializes in environmental law and advises clients on PFAS issues. “The question is, how long were you using it and what did you do with the (sludge) that came from the waste?”
By Eric Rempala August 17, 2023- Oneida County Clean Waters Action attended the DNR's presentation at the town of Stella on August 15. As you may know, OCCWA uses outside news links to provide information. We then try to supply complimentary information and links to supplement provided links. So, we have much to unpack for consideration from the Stella/DNR meeting.
Let's start with the WXPR Katie Thoresen piece from the press meeting prior to the town meeting. DNR: Stella wells have some of the highest levels of PFAS in the US | Wisconsin Public Radio (wpr.org)
The most concerning issue being Steve Elmore of the DNR's quote “These levels are significant. It's some of the highest levels in the country that we've seen, and certainly, the highest we've seen in groundwater and drinking water in Wisconsin,” said Elmore. What this says is that Stella is by no means a small concern. It ranks right up there with the PFAS problems in Marinette WI and should be treated as such.
Another concern to consider is though it appears that shallower sand and gravel wells may have more contamination, drilling a new well deeper into the granite may still have PFAS contamination as well as low water flow. So, the question becomes, What happens if you drill a $23,000 well and it's not functional?
Moving on to the actual DNR-Stella town meeting. Once again WXPR Katie Thoresen coverage. PFAS contamination in Stella among highest in the country, the forever chemicals are now being found in nearby lakes | WXPR Here additional information is released, namely recent surface water testing results for Stella and Rhinelander area.
Notable Surface Test Results
1) Good news, all of the Wisconsin River tested below allowable Wisconsin PFAS surface water standard levels including in Rhinelander all the way down to Hat Rapids Road. With slightly elevated numbers below the Pelican River mouth.
2) Pelican River tested above state allowable PFAS surface water standard levels from Fifth Lake all the way down to where it empties into the Wisconsin River.
3) Both Spur and Moen Lakes tested below state allowable PFAS surface standards.
4) Third Lake tested just above state allowable PFAS surface standards.
5) The Bad news is Snowden Lake tested over 16 times the state allowable PFAS surface standards. The DNR surmised the reason may be due to Snowden water source coming directly form ground water.
Note: PFAS testing was done for PFOA as well as PFOS.
Here is DNR's newest and most helpful link to the recent surface water testing. Maps and tables with actual test numbers. You will want to see this! Stella and Rhinelander Area SW PFAS Results 2023 - Maps and Tables (wisconsin.gov)
We at OCCWA realize this PFAS issue causes anger and frustration but we recommend using a level head moving forward as there is so much work to be done. We commend the citizens of Stella for their fair treatment of those informing them. The DNR we have encountered have been helpful and accessible in answering our questions. Also, it's worth mentioning that the DNR arrived with close to a dozen representatives for the Stella meeting. Here is the DNR's August 15th press release. Response To PFAS Contamination Ongoing With Town Of Stella And Multiple State Agencies | Wisconsin DNR
Last but not least, the DNR has acquired a sludge sample to test for PFAS from the Rhinelander paper mill Ahlstrom Munksjo. Many believe that Stella's PFAS issue may have come from sludge spreading over many years and they may well be right. As of now though there is no actual proof of the source. The DNR is investigating but fear the results may be difficult to determine. We would remind you that the current paper mill operators acquired the mill in recent years and may not have any responsibility in this legacy PFAS issue. We bring this up due to the recent litigation article from WXPR. Lawsuit blames Ahlstrom Munksjo and 3M for Stella PFAS contamination. DNR has yet to identify the source. | WXPR
Update August 15, 2023- We at OCCWA are sharing two recent television pieces. First one being WJFW coverage of the Rhinelander paper mill lawsuit. Rhinelander Paper Mill sued in class action suit | News | wjfw.com We hope to garner more information when we attend the DNR Stella meeting tonight August 15.
Also we are sharing WSAW coverage of PFAS advocates' discussion on Senate Bill 312. PFAS advocates came together to discuss 312 Senate Bill (wsaw.com) As we have shared previously on other posts as well as this very post (see below)"PFAS Bill Would Let PFAS Polluters Off the Hook and Shift Cleanup Costs to Wisconsin Taxpayers" PFAS Advocates continue to have concerns with Senate Bill 312 pertaining to DNR's ability to hold polluters responsible. Wausau Alderperson Tom Killian WSAW direct quotes “While this bill provides much-needed funding to address PFAS in local communities, it also creates a polluter loophole that will restrict DNR authority, and our Spills law,” said Wausau District 3 Alderperson Tom Kilian.
“Routinely our legislative processes have been polluted by money interest and corporate lobbyists who routinely have traded our people’s health protections for profit, and we see this in this element of the bill,” said Kilian.
These quotes echo concerns stated by Midwest Environmental Advocates and shared on previous OCCWA articles.
Update July 17 2023- The Wisconsin DNR now offers to test sewage sludge for PFAS from wastewater treatment facilities. If facilities are concerned and want results, the DNR would pay for testing at both industrial and municipal plants. If a landowner considering sludge applications should request testing for PFAS from the facility, the excuse of cost considerations should no longer be an issue. This is an excellent decision on the DNR's part. See WPR coverage Wisconsin DNR offers to test sewage sludge for PFAS at wastewater facilities | Wisconsin Public Radio (wpr.org)
By Eric Rempala June 27, 2023- Results are in from the most recent expanded DNR PFAS tests for the town of Stella. Provided is a direct quote from the latest DNR update.
"The DNR expanded private well sampling to an additional 56 full-time residences and two summer camps within 2.5 miles of the Stella Town Hall. As of May 3, 2023, a total of 50 wells were sampled within the 2.5-mile expanded area. Of those, the DNR sampled 43 full-time residences, and three residences sampled their own well prior to being contacted by the DNR. Of the 50 private wells sampled:
Homeowners that found their private well is impacted by PFAS above DHS' recommended health guidelines are eligible for in-home bottled water paid for by the DNR. The DNR will correspond with impacted homeowners to initiate the process."
It appears the further away from the Stella Town Hall the better the tests get. Mind you, there were still 11 wells that tested above DHS's recommended health guidelines. No other determinations were given by the DNR. Most recent information including a map of testing results is available at the DNR town of Stella website. PFAS Contamination in the Town of Stella | | Wisconsin DNR
Testing of surface waters in Stella is being done this summer and we will share those results when they become available.
I recently attended the DNR's PFAS External Advisory Group meeting PFAS_EAGMeeting_20230616.mp4 (widen.net) There was much valuable information to be had. At the 57-minute mark a presentation was given on the spreading of industrial and sewage sludge on the land and the permitting process. This process is called soil amendments. Right now, 85% of all sludge is used for land applications.
At this time testing for PFAS is not required on the sludge but there is some monitoring being done. At the 1:41 mark during public comment, I posed a question as to when testing may be required. The answer was, until the EPA sets a standard for PFAS content in sludge which hopefully will occur within the next year, no testing requirements will be implemented. No solid timetable can be determined at this time, but the DNR understands the public's concern and hopes to move forward as soon as possible.
A recent WXPR article covering potential PFAS legislation here Wisconsin Republicans vote to spend $125 million to combat PFAS pollution, but not right away | WXPR
Also provided below is a recent news release by Midwest Environmental Advocates
Supporters of a bill under consideration in the Legislature say it would provide much-needed funding to communities impacted by PFAS contamination, but the bill could end up leaving Wisconsinites worse off. That’s because it contains troubling provisions that limit the state’s enforcement authority and shift the cost of cleanup from polluters to taxpayers.
Last month, the Legislature voted to create a $125-million-dollar fund to address PFAS contamination in communities across the state. A companion bill creating a municipal grant program was subsequently introduced. The news was greeted with cautious optimism, but that optimism quickly faded when it became clear that the bill would make it harder for the state to hold PFAS polluters accountable under Wisconsin's Spills Law.
Shifting responsibility away from polluters would come at an extraordinary cost to taxpayers. Consider, for example, the potential cost of remediating PFAS pollution originating from JCI/Tyco's fire technology center in Marinette. The company reportedly set aside $140 million in 2019 and an additional $255 million in 2022 for remediation efforts. When you consider that more than 100 sites of PFAS contamination have so far been identified in Wisconsin, it's easy to see how statewide cleanup costs could quickly exceed the $125 million allocated by the Legislature.
This attempt to undermine the Spills Law in the Legislature comes at a time when the same law is also under attack in the courts. (See previous article.) Unless the bill is amended to remove limitations on the state’s enforcement authority, MEA will call on Governor Evers to use his veto pen to reject it."
What kind of financial damages are we talking about with PFAS? See article on 3M 10.3 billion dollar settlement. 3M reaches $10.3 billion settlement over contamination of water systems : NPR
WXPR provides article on most effective PFAS filters Nearly half the nation's tap water may contain PFAS. Here's how some filters rank at removing them. | Wisconsin Public Radio (wpr.org)
By Eric Rempala July 28, 2023-
First, we will start out with a tremendous YouTube video by Dr Steven Emerman. The Myth of Clean Mining - YouTube This 1-hour video answers all you need to know about Metallic Sulfide Mining's environmental impacts. For town board members to residents, if you want to clearly understand the ramifications of the Northwoods becoming a Mining District this is a must watch!
Next, we go to Marathon County where OCCWA has worked with local interests concerned about mining near the Eau Claire Dells. As we have stated before mining Northern Wisconsin is not just an Oneida County issue. From a Wausau Pilot and Review article we get Marathon County "seeking a return of local government control over environmental matters related to metallic mining exploration" Marathon County seeks local control over mining, wind energy projects, farm runoff - Wausau Pilot & Review (wausaupilotandreview.com) Also from Wausau Pilot and Review we get a fantastic Op Ed from Wisconsin River Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited opposing Metallic Sulfide Mining in our water rich areas. Bravo TU! Opinion: Clean, safe water is more precious than gold. Mining puts that at risk. - Wausau Pilot & Review (wausaupilotandreview.com)
Green Light Metals in their most recent PowerPoint Presentation reiterates their desire to turn Northern Wisconsin into a Mining District. PowerPoint Presentation (greenlightmetals.com)
A mining district is a special-purpose administrative subdivision used in North America. Mining districts were organized in sparsely populated, remote areas where mineral and metals mining were a viable commercial enterprise. Initially improvised as a means of self-governance for 19th-century prospectors, mining districts were eventually statutorily defined and still exist.
Sacrifice Zone Definition:
A sacrifice zone or sacrifice area is a geographic area that has been permanently impaired by heavy environmental alterations or economic disinvestment, often through locally unwanted land use. Wikipedia What are ‘sacrifice zones’ and why do some Americans live in them? | Adrienne Matei | The Guardian
In other news we at OCCWA have worked with and contributed to a new Facebook group Mining Impact Coalition of WI. Check it out when you have time we think you'll like it!
Last but not least, I'd like to call attention to a fledgling group in the UP who are working to raise awareness of mining alongside of the Porcupine Mountains. Protect Porcupine Mountains State Park From the Contaminating Metallic Sulfide Mine Copperwood - Protect the Porkies For anyone who has visited the Porkies, you know what a wonderful place it is. The website is accurate and offers a Petition to oppose a mine alongside the Presque Isle River and upstream of Lake Superior.
By Dan Butkus July 19, 2023- This is a “thank you” and an update on the Oneida County Shoreland Protection Ordinance Revision #13-2022. It’s the sweeping revision that received massive amounts of pushback from the public with help from OCCWA, as well as Oneida County Lakes and Rivers Association (OCLRA) and others. Thank you OCCWA for your support against the attack on our shoreland habitat where the county sought to weaken our county’s shoreland ordinances. This does not mean there were not good changes in the ordinance revision. The good was just outweighed by the bad.
In the way of an update on the ordinance revision, it is in hiatus, but it is not dead. Last April at the public hearing on the ordinance, we learned that the DNR would not certify the revision if passed. This, along with the large turnout by the public to oppose the changes had caused the Planning and Development Committee to regroup. They asked Zoning to engage an attorney to review the revision and to pushback against the DNR’s interpretation of law. Zoning had cited Lincoln County’s similar ordinance and certification by the DNR. We had also learned that the DNR was grateful for Oneida County pointing out Lincoln County’s own violations of state statute s. 59.692 and Administrative Code NR 115.
Well, things have been silent for 3 months. Silent, that is, until the July 17th meeting of the Administration Committee. At the meeting, Zoning Department Director, Karl Jennrich, asked the Committee for $10,000 to engage Stafford Rosembaum LLP’s Larry Konopacki to take on the task of challenging the DNR. The request was approved using Contingency Fund monies. Mr. Konopacki describes himself as an environmental issues attorney. The groups he lobbies for are generally in favor of reducing regulations, and in support of property rights. They include Mount Trempealeau Corporation (seeks to weaken regulation for floodplain development), Municipal Environmental Group Wastewater Division (seeks to weaken regulations on municipal wastewater treatment plants), Wisconsin Realtors Association, Wisconsin Towns Association, and others. Prior to that, Mr. Konopacki worked for the Wisconsin Legislative Council and moderated a seminar in Minocqua entitled “Mining 101”. That seminar reviewed the changes to state law concerning metallic mining.
It is clear that Oneida County’s choice of outside counsel is intended to reinforce the County’s desire to weaken shoreland zoning and threaten shoreland habitat.
The grassroots fight over this ordinance revision is far from over. It is just taking a breather right now while the County enlists reinforcements. As for timing, the author expects this to resurface again in the fall of 2023. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor Planning and Development Committee agendas, and we will network with the DNR to get a sense of when the next round is coming. We will keep you informed.
So again, thank you to OCCWA for supporting this effort. And thank you to the many OCCWA readers/supporters who came out to the public hearing, or wrote to the County, to make their voices heard in April. Your comments were most welcomed. We could not have done any of this without you.
We at OCCWA greatly appreciate Mr. Butkus' acknowledgment and also wish to thank our supporters as well as the many others who turned out to speak up!
We would like to share a Lakeland Times LTE by Jeff Brown. Jeff did a fantastic job protecting the Town of Lynne during the Protect the Willow movement and hits it out of the park with his latest LTE. The Lakeland Times
We would also like to acknowledge the OCLRA who led an innovative ballot initiative to help the public understand the issues at hand and give their input to the county.
Here is a link to WJFW coverage of OCLRA's most recent effort at educating the public on lake habitat protection.
Update July 17 2023- From a recent Wisconsin Examiner article, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) along with Wisconsin Dairy Alliance (WDA) have joined in a lawsuit to exempt Factory Farms from WDNR permit requirements. One more reason why Oneida County should reconsider their postponed Manure Storage Ordinance. CAFO owners suing to end DNR permits have spilled more than 26,000 gallons of manure - Wisconsin Examiner
By Kathleen Cooper July 13, 2023- The waters and ecosystems of northern Wisconsin face yet another environmental threat - besides PFAS, sulfide mining, and local leaders who favor corporate interests instead of residents. This is the threat of CAFO’s being established in our Northwoods.
CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and refers to facilities that house 1000 or more “animal units”. These facilities can include meat, dairy, or egg operations where animals are kept and raised in confinement. Instead of grazing or eating in pastures, in fields, or on rangelands, animals are confined in small spaces and fed until they are ready for slaughter.
These CAFO’s pose many problems for the surrounding environment. They affect air quality, groundwater and surface water quality, land use, quantity and quality of nearby drinking water wells, damage to local roads from heavy truck traffic, and increased odors and noise. In other words, they stink and cause contamination to our precious, pristine environment because of the huge amounts of manure produced daily, which has to be spread on fields, causing runoff into our lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. In Wisconsin, 90% of all groundwater pollution comes from fertilizer and manure application.
Our neighbors in Polk County in northwestern Wisconsin are facing this threat now. When Cumberland LLC proposed establishing a swine operation that would house up to 26,350 pigs, small municipalities in the area such as Laketown passed ordinances to regulate how the CAFO’s can operate. Laketown’s rules applied to operations with 700 or more “animal units,” and required applicants to submit plans for preventing infectious diseases, air pollution and odor, managing waste, and handling dead animals, as well as mandating traffic and property value impact studies, a plan for clean-ups, and permit fees. This ordinance did not affect existing livestock facilities, unless they changed owners.
However, Wisconsin’s “right to farm” and livestock facility laws rebuff local control over CAFO’s, because regulating livestock operations, but not banning them or restricting their locations, could enable communities to sidestep the state laws, possibly affecting the state’s $104.8 billion agricultural industry. Big farming and dairy interests are threatening to sue the small towns in Polk County, including Laketown and Bone Lake. Usually when this happens the small towns cave to the power and money of the big farming interests, but so far the tiny municipalities in Polk County have stood their ground.
Last year, a manure storage ordinance that could have provided the residents of Oneida County with a buffer to the establishment of a CAFO here by powerful business and farming interests was rejected by our County Board. One farmer, who’s operation was not affected by the regulations proposed, objected. One farmer. Without some sort of regulatory safety net, Oneida County is an easy target for these CAFO’s, with all their stink and pollution. If you have ever driven past a huge swine operation and taken a whiff, you know what this entails.
Here is an excellent article from Barn Raising Media Regulating CAFOs Hits Snag in Wisconsin - Barn Raiser (barnraisingmedia.com)
Grist article covering town vs CAFO legal battle A Wisconsin town tried to stop factory farm pollution. Then got sued. | Grist
Link to Oneida County Land and Water January 2022 update Manure Storage - Oneida County Land and Water Conservation (oclw.org)
By Kathleen Cooper June 16, 2023- The latest funding bill proposed by the Wisconsin legislature seems to be the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing” for local governments. The latest funding bill proposed by the Wisconsin legislature seems to be the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing” for local governments.
While it raises funding for most municipalities in Wisconsin by 15%, (but only 10% in Democratically controlled Milwaukee, stating that Milwaukee, unlike other cities, would be able to increase sales taxes themselves) there are some alarming proposals included.
This bill would ban local advisory referenda questions on everything except for certain projects that would be funded with property tax money. It would also mandate that local governments approve projects under the state’s land stewardship program that are north of US Highway 8, which runs across the northernmost quarter of the state. Removing the ability of local governments to establish rules pertaining to the use of quarries is also included in this proposal.
The ban on referenda would effectively silence the voices of the people of the State of Wisconsin and leave the fate of widely unpopular programs and proposals to the state and county governments. While this sounds reasonable, many times our own governments, whether state or local, do not vote in favor of what the majority of their constituents want, as evidenced by the recent votes concerning the Pelican River Forest by the Joint Finance Committee and the Oneida County Board. In spite of overwhelming public support, both governing bodies voted against the acquisition of conservation easements in the PRF.
This is reminiscent of 2018, when the Oneida County Board was veering toward allowing a mining company to begin drilling core samples in wetlands adjacent to the Willow Flowage in the Town of Lynne. The public outcry prompted the county board to hold a non-binding referendum on the Lynne mine, which resulted in an overwhelming bipartisan rejection of mining, specifically for the Lynne mine, but also generally for Oneida County as a whole. Without the right to hold this referendum, Oneida County may have had to allow a mine in this priceless habitat and these pristine waters.
Now our state legislators are proposing to remove the last hope of the public of having any opportunity to go on record regarding legislation. Since our own representatives have not voted in favor of popular opinion many times in the past and have in fact publicly stated that they do not “vote the way their constituents want,” these referenda are vital. These referenda allow the people to have a voice. Why do our legislators see that as a problem so terrible that they have to write a law against it? The referenda are non-binding, after all.
If this proposal passes, the next step will be, against the will of the people of Oneida County and northern Wisconsin, the establishment of a sulfide mining district that includes all of northern Wisconsin. In spite of what the mining companies say, this will be devastating for our lakes, rivers, and forest habitat. Please speak out to our legislators and tell them that the people of Oneida County and northern Wisconsin want to have a voice and want to continue to be heard.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel coverage of proposed bill here GOP releases bill to increase money for Wisconsin local governments
Direct quote from the June 16th, Felzkowski Flyer emailing on banning advisory referenda.
"Preventing local governments from using hot-button political advisory referendums, on issues they have no direct control over, to increase partisan voter turnout."
Please note the assertion "issues they have no direct control over
BY Eric Rempala June 15, 2023- As The Conservation Fund (TCF) Wisconsin Archives - The Conservation Fund continues to move forward with the potential Pelican River Forest, we at OCCWA feel towns and residents may want to understand better what exactly the Forest Legacy Program Forest Legacy | US Forest Service (usda.gov) is and how it works. This program is the instrument TCF is using to establish this privately owned forest with public access. So, directly from the Forest Legacy Program website,
"The Forest Legacy Program (FLP) is a conservation program administered by the U.S. Forest Service in partnership with State agencies to encourage the protection of privately owned forest lands through conservation easements or land purchases. Protection of private forests through FLP maintains a multitude of public benefits including:
Loss of forested areas poses an increasing threat to the integrity of the nation’s natural resources. As these areas are fragmented and disappear, so do the benefits they provide. By providing economic incentives to landowners to keep their forests as forests, we can encourage sustainable forest management and support strong markets for forest products.
Since its creation in 1990, FLP has conserved over 2.8 million acres of forest land and expanded across the country to 53 states and territories. These “working forests” protect water quality and provide wildlife habitat, forest products, opportunities for recreation and other public benefits."
With this in mind I recently had a discussion with Ron Eckstein Town of Pelican resident as well as retired DNR forester. Ron shared this insight below.
"Information from DNR Forestry: Here is a list of WI Forest Legacy Projects in Wisconsin. All seem to be progressing with only minor problems. One problem was lack of road access in some of the earlier large easements. Local outdoors people didn’t like closed roads. The result is all large easements since 2014 have a “road maintenance endowment”. A problem with forest management occurred some years ago when Plum Creek Timberlands owned several large easements. There were legitimate concerns about over harvest in northern hardwood stands (a few years ago Plum Creek sold all its WI land). As with all forest land owners in Wisconsin (public & private) there are always concerns about how active forest management proceeds.
This is what I understand based on information from DNR & people familiar with the program:
The reason DNR changed to acquiring large easements on industrial forest tracts after 2005 was the rapid change in industrial forest ownership starting around 1990. Large blocks of paper mill-owned industrial forests were sold to Timber Management Investment Organizations (TIMOs). The TIMO’s basic business plan is to purchase forest land, cut timber, sell off some of the parcel to developers, then sell the whole parcel to another TIMO after 10 or 12 years. This business plan results in fragmentation of ownership and a lack of long-term commitment to sustainable forest management."
Here is a link to DNR Forest Legacy Program information Forest Legacy Program | | Wisconsin DNR Also provided a link to DNR map of all other FLP projects in Wisconsin Forest Legacy Program Conservation Easements (wisconsin.gov)
An excellent source of forestry information is Joe Hovel at Partners in Forestry (PIF). PIF has a Forest Legacy easement in Vilas County and is active with DNR’s Private Forest Management team. Partners in Forestry
By Eric Rempala May 22, 2023- At the May 16th, three-hour Oneida County Board meeting the board voted 12 to 6 with two abstentions against the Pelican River Forest project. For those who support the proposed forest it was disappointing. However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to protecting water, our most valuable natural resource in the county.
First, the resolution directly out of committee was amended multiple times by the board with the final version linked here 20230516161005907.pdf (brightspotcdn.com) A final version that Supervisor Rio noted was poorly written, too convoluted and too disjointed. Looking at the resolution one can see there are some valid points made. Namely multiple asks for the DNR to do a better job informing affected towns with a project such as this and also a request to increase the time allotted for towns to make a decision. After that the resolution veers off the rails with requests that the state buy road access easements on the private land and deed it to the county so that they may maintain the roads. The county board who opposes more public land in the resolution then asks for more public land that they must maintain. Huh?
Interestingly the board added a new item to the resolution, one asking to reinstate a Managed Forest Land severance tax that was eliminated in April of 2016 during the Walker administration. The thought process being not enough income is generated from MFL land.
Moving on to the entertaining part of the board meeting. Link to full board meeting County Board - YouTube
Many interesting comments were made. Below are short descriptions of highlighted comments with the time they occur in the above YouTube link for your viewing pleasure.
1) At the 28-minute mark 25 public comments lasting an hour begin, all in favor of Pelican River Forest.
2) At 1HR 17-minute mark Charlie Carlin of Gathering Waters provides an overview of all public support as well as already in place ATV and Snowmobile access.
3)At 1HR and 20-minute mark Clint Miller of The Conservation Fund explains who they are and the intent and objectives of the Forest Legacy Program.
4) At the 2HR and 32-minute mark Supervisor Rio thoughtfully speaks to his concerns of the resolution as written and states " I refuse to vote against my constituents" constituents who overwhelmingly support Pelican River Forest.
5)At the 2HR and 39-minute mark Supervisor Roach speaks to the reasons he supports the resolution and states " I don't do necessarily what my constituents want". Mr. Roach then continues on to disparage those who spoke publicly.
Finally, I would like to address an issue that we at OCCWA have been concerned about for quite some time. The issue is the disconnect between Towns and residents with the County Board. The City of Rhinelander as well as the towns of Schoepke, Pelican, Lake Tomahawk, and Pine Lake all have passed resolutions in favor of Pelican River Forest. Yet multiple Supervisors failed to recognize this input with their votes. Perhaps these supervisors have valid reasons? We look forward to them sharing these reasons publicly.
Here are five examples of how voting according to constituent input would have changed the outcome.
1) If Supervisor Condado who represents Pelican and voted for the County resolution would have voted against the resolution as the Pelican Town resolution infers.
2) If Supervisor Fisher who represents wards in Rhinelander and Pelican and abstained from voting actually voted against the County resolution as his town's resolutions infer.
3) If Supervisor Oettinger who represents Rhinelander, Pine Lake, and Stella voted against the County resolution as both the Rhinelander and Pine Lake resolutions infer. Rather, he voted for the resolution.
4)If Supervisor Roach who represents Newbold and Lake Tomahawk voted against the County resolution as the Lake Tomahawk resolution infers. Alas Mr. Roach, like Supervisors Condado and Oettinger voted against his constituent's wishes.
5) In a different vein but still significant was Supervisor Showalter's absence. Mr. Showalter who represents wards in Rhinelander may well have voted along with his constituents opposing the resolution.
If my math is correct, and in all five instances Supervisors voted with their constituents the vote would have been 11 to 9 against the resolution. So, there you have the light at the end of the tunnel as promised earlier. If the Towns communicate with the Supervisors who in turn vote with their constituents, just maybe we see favorable votes on water protection going forward!
WXPR coverage of May 16th board meeting Oneida County passes “disjointed” resolution opposing Pelican River Forest easements | WXPR
By Karl Fate May 19, 2023- During the 1980s I conducted independent research on the mineral exploration patterns in Northern Wisconsin. The most perplexing patterns were drillings conducted by Noranda at what was at the time called the “Stockley Creek Site” in the Upper-Wolf River Watershed and the northeastern portion of the Town of Schoepke. This exploration site would eventually become known as the Wolf River Deposit but is really comprised of three poorly known deposits referred to as “Rabbit”, “Duckblind”, and “Lobo”.
Recently, a mining-related company, “Badger Minerals”, drilled a small number of exploration drill holes at these deposits. Badger acquired rights to the Lobo Deposit on private property but declined to acquire “Rabbit” and “Duckblind” when they terminated their drilling program. According to reporting at that time, “the results of the drilling program weren't worth pursuing further and the company will not be purchasing the land that the drilling was conducted on.” Rabbit and Duckblind are part of the 2nd phase of the Pelican River Forest, but the Lobo Deposit is not.
At this time a related company called Greenlight Metals controls the Lobo Deposit and what they call “Lobo East”, aka the “Black Property”, north and west of Lucille Lake, which lies between Meister Lane and Lake River Road in the Town of Schoepke.
The protection of the watershed of the Upper-Wolf River is of critical importance to the Town of Schoepke, Oneida County, multiple downstream Counties, and is of Regional and National significance. In 2018 our County Government approved a new Mining Ordinance that sets the County up “to host a regional mill & tailings facility” receiving sulfide wastes from across the North, and that removes an important local control from much of the County, including the Upper-Wolf River Watershed. Stay tuned for further details.
Link for Green Light Metals (referenced in article) presentation PowerPoint Presentation (greenlightmetals.com)
Mining Tidbits By Eric Rempala,
In a recent article posted by BHP Mining they state
BHP and Rio Tinto "aim to jointly identify a portfolio of tailings management partners with whom they can work to accelerate the development of technologies that could increase water recovery and reduce potential safety risks and environmental footprints associated with tailings storage facilities".
Thats interesting! I thought our legislators told us the current process was safe when they eliminated our Prove It First Law.
See BHP article link here BHP and Rio Tinto invite collaboration on new tailings technologies
By Karl Fate January 30, 2023-
Tom Tiffany’s mining fantasies have not been working out. He authored what may go down as one of the worst laws ever written, designed to create a low-cost iron mine by removing the top of the Penokee Hills and filling in the headwaters of the Bad River, a major river feeding Lake Superior, with the mine wastes. It did not end well for Mr. Tiffany.
Then Senator Tiffany’s dream came true when he was able overturn the so-called “Mining Moratorium Law”, despite overwhelming opposition to his scheme. The law was never a moratorium on metallic mining in our State but contained a common sense, “prove it first” requirement that the industry did not like.
The repeal of this law was treated by some in the industry, and much of the media, as a greenlight for Metallic Sulfide Mining in the Northwoods, but an examination of the difficult history of this type of mining in our Northwoods environment tells a different story.
Sulfide Mining became an issue in Northern Wisconsin when the Flambeau Deposit was discovered in 1968. Kennecott’s mining proposal was stopped in 1976 by local control, the year after Exxon Minerals discovered the world-class zinc/copper/precious metals deposit southwest of Crandon. The Exxon Mine was halted in 1986 amid local opposition to the storage of sulfide waste materials, and the dewatering of ground and surface waters in the Wolf River watershed.
By 1989 several mineral deposits had been discovered in northern Wisconsin and both resulting mining proposals had failed. Mineral exploration was intense, and interest was high, including for an area on County Forest just upstream of the Willow Flowage where Exxon and Kerr-McGee had been gathering data, but their activities were limited because the Forest was closed to metallic mining.
When Oneida County made the fateful, and extremely unpopular decision to open the Forest to metallic mining, Noranda Minerals was quick to secure a Mineral Lease to a vast wetland area upstream of the Flowage. Noranda promptly discovered the Lynne Deposit in 1990 and initiated a mine permitting process in 1992, but soon stopped the process when the obvious water issues came to light. Noranda eventually asked for an extension on their lease with the County and was denied. Noranda formally released its interest in the Lynne Site on March 10th, 1998. Noranda was a major player in northern Wisconsin, involved at Pelican River, Wolf River, and Reef, but they finally hit it big when they discovered the Lynne Deposit. Ironically, it also marked the beginning of their exit from the State.
A group of Supervisors began pushing for a mine at Lynne again in 2009. They were turned back three times in 2012 amid overwhelming public and tribal opposition. They tried again in 2018 with a Referendum Question following the repeal of the “Moratorium Law”. The Referendum Question was defeated by a substantial margin of opposition to leasing the Lynne Site, with only three of the twenty Towns favoring it.
The discovery of the Lynne Deposit physically brought the sulfide mining issue into Oneida County, and it clarified the problems with sulfide mining in this environment, already known to close observers of the Exxon Project.
In 1993 the Flambeau Mine began production, but it was dramatically scaled back compared to the original proposal, removing only the rich, upper portion of the deposit, leaving the rest, and shipping the ore to Canada for processing. After partial reclamation, the project was plagued by nagging water quality issues.
In 1997 the so-called “Mining Moratorium Law” was approved and was tested during the permitting process for the new Crandon Mine proposal, but it was somewhat of a moot point as the project suffered from social opposition and a myriad of environmental problems including an ill-fated scheme to pump the wastewater through a 38-mile-long discharge pipeline, drawing both Oneida and Lincoln Counties into the fray.
Tom Tiffany and his cronies undoubtedly hoped that repeal of the “moratorium law” would be a complete reset, creating a greenlight for sulfide mines beneath our watery world. They want the Counties and Towns to believe that they must accept and promote sulfide mining, even removing local control to facilitate it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The historical reality is that multiple mining proposals failed substantially before passage of the “moratorium law” and the final Crandon project was doomed to failure despite it. Local Governments in Oneida County have recently gone on record opposing Sulfide Mining in the County and mineral exploration is receiving even more scrutiny than before it ended during the 1990s. The physical and social realities on the ground that caused these failures have not changed. Most of the Industry realize that Northern Wisconsin is an unwise investment because of these realities.
Karl Fate is a longtime Oneida County resident and OCCWA's go to contributor for all things mining. His resume includes- First got involved around 1982 doing research on exploration patterns, reviewed the first Exxon project, was involved reviewing Lynne on all three occasions, reviewed Flambeau #2, and reviewed the final Crandon proposals. Was also involved with the Oneida County Mining Ordinance back when it was designed to be protective.
The recent DNR decision referred to in the header is covered below here on our homepage "DNR Grants Flambeau Mine Certificate of Completion."
Dated January 20, 2023.
January 20, 2023
A joint press release by Deer Tail Scientific, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, Wisconsin Sierra Club, and Center for Science in Public Participation
DNR Declares Flambeau Mine Reclamation Process “Complete” Despite Ongoing Pollution
-Decision Shows Weakness of Wisconsin’s Mining Laws
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has granted a request from Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) to certify that the company’s restoration of the Flambeau Mine project site near Ladysmith has been successfully completed. The so-called “Certificate of Completion” (COC), originally sought by the company in 2007, was denied earlier due to surface water contamination problems in a Flambeau River tributary that crosses a portion of the project site.
The tributary at issue in 2007 (“Stream C”) remains polluted to the present day, but the DNR nonetheless decided to grant Flambeau Mining Company the certificate, citing provisions in Wisconsin’s mining code that allowed them to do so despite the pollution.
"The DNR's declaration of "complete" reclamation of the Flambeau Mine is just more greenwashing of a polluted mine site," said Al Gedicks, Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and one of the plaintiffs in a 2011 Clean Water Act lawsuit against Flambeau Mining Company. He added, "The company will continue to promote the mine to targeted communities in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota as an example of an environmental success story while pollution continues at the site."
Background: The Flambeau Mine was an open pit metal-sulfide mine that operated for four years in the mid-1990s in Rusk County, Wisconsin. Constructed on the banks of the Flambeau River, the mine produced copper, gold, silver and a small amount of zinc. It was owned by Rio Tinto/Kennecott (Salt Lake City, UT) and operated by their subsidiary, Flambeau Mining Company (FMC).
When production ceased in 1997, the 32-acre mine pit was backfilled with waste rock, the surface was revegetated with prairie grass, and several recreational trails were constructed for public use. In 1999, two sets of wells were drilled within the backfilled pit to keep track of what’s going on beneath the surface. Ever since, high concentrations of heavy metals have been reported in the groundwater.
In 2002, FMC started to test the water in a Flambeau River tributary that crosses a portion of the restored project site. High concentrations of copper exceeding state water quality standards were reported on a consistent basis for many years and the result was that a half-mile segment of the tributary was eventually added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of Impaired Waters in 2012. It remains listed to the present day.
FMC has tried to clean up the polluted tributary using a variety of different approaches approved by the DNR. Unfortunately, not only has the contamination persisted but in 2022, an additional stretch of the tributary within the project site was added to the EPA’s Impaired Waters list. As noted by Dr. David Chambers, an environmental consultant who has been tracking water contamination problems at the Flambeau Mine project site for many years, “Stream C continues to be contaminated even after the completion of reclamation activities. Both copper and zinc levels exceed water quality standards.”
In handing down its decision to certify that FMC had successfully reclaimed the Flambeau Mine project site, the DNR cited provisions of Wisconsin’s mining code that allowed them to do so. Primarily, they focused attention on their determination that FMC had “completed reclamation in accordance with the approved reclamation plan.”
That approach was consistent with what FMC had maintained in a legal brief filed in 2007, the first time the company sought COC certification. When making their legal arguments before the judge, the company characterized the COC process as “simple and limited to essentially “checking off” whether FMC has or has not completed certain specified reclamation tasks …”. Absent was any consideration of whether or not the reclamation plan had actually succeeded in protecting public waters.
In 2007, citizens challenged FMC’s interpretation of the law at a contested case hearing and were able to get some concessions from the company. For the most part, however, both the judge and representatives of the DNR agreed with FMC’s reading of the law.
In other words, Wisconsin’s mining laws simply require a mining company to prove they did whatever their reclamation plan said they were going to do. For example, FMC’s plan called for the construction of a stormwater detention basin to filter out contaminants before reaching Stream C, and FMC constructed the basin. The company also backfilled the mine pit with waste rock and added some limestone to try to minimize groundwater contamination, as specified in the plan.
The recent Flambeau Mine decision confirms that the issue of whether or not a mining company’s reclamation plan succeeded in protecting the state’s waters does not factor into a COC decision. When the DNR awarded the COC to Flambeau Mining Company, there was no mention of how the groundwater within the backfilled mine pit is highly contaminated and undrinkable. Nor was there any mention of how FMC’s stormwater detention basin had failed to adequately sequester contaminants and that, as a result, a tributary of the Flambeau River is now impaired.
The only thing the DNR’s decision stated with regard to water contamination issues was that FMC, in acknowledgement of the Stream C pollution problem, will develop a work plan for assessing impacts to the stream in early 2023. As noted by Dave Blouin, State Mining Committee Chair for the Sierra Club, “Wisconsin's environmental community will be watching carefully to ensure that the assessment and any follow-up steps including cleanup or remediation are accomplished to ensure the stream is healthy.” He added, “The impairment of Stream C due to pollution from the mine site demonstrates that the Flambeau Mine is not an example of a successful metal-sulfide mine.”
Laura Gauger, a citizen who submitted comments in opposition to the COC, summed it up like this: “Wisconsin’s weak mining laws have brought us to where we are today. Even though FMC’s restoration of the Flambeau Mine project site has been declared “complete” by the DNR, it doesn’t mean the water over there is clean. Rather, we are left with a polluted stream on the EPA’s Impaired Waters list and a large swath of river frontage with undrinkable groundwater.” She added, “Unfortunately, the public appears to have no legal recourse.”
OCCWA Commentary- We at OCCWA have long lobbied for the repeal of ACT134 and the reinstatement of the Prove It First Law. We included this request in our resolution recommendations to towns. Clearly the Flambeau Mine which has ceased mining operations 26 years ago continues to produce pollution that requires an on-property stream to be classified as impaired would not be an example of a successful mine by original Prove It First Law standards. That impaired stream is a direct tributary to the Flambeau River.
One now can understand why the mining industry lobbied hard for our politicians to reinvent our mining laws with Act134 and eliminate the highly successful Prove It First Law. One has a harder time understanding why our politicians chose to pacify the mining industry over public opinion.
For a short refresher on Metallic Sulfide Mining environmental impacts check out link below.