Here or abroad, mining accidents are catastrophic disasters

By Al Gedicks

May 16, 2019--Nathan Conrad, the executive director of the advocacy group Natural Resources Development Association -- who represents the Canadian mining company Aquila Resources -- criticizes environmentalists for highlighting catastrophic mining accidents that have occurred in other countries (“Mining can bring Wisconsin’s economy, environment together," Capital Times, May 7, 2019). 

Significantly, Conrad never mentions the recent tailings dam disaster in Brazil (see article below) that killed over 200 people and contaminated local water supplies. Conrad says that such reporting omits the “simple fact that the permitting and regulatory process in lands abroad are not nearly as stringent as those in the United States.” This statement is wrong on both counts.

The tailings dam failure in Brazil occurred in a technologically advanced country with mining companies that were required to use state-of-the-art technology to construct and maintain tailings dams. 

The leading expert on tailings dam failures is Dr. David Chambers, director of the Center for Science in Public Participation in Bozeman, Montana. His research demonstrates that these dam failures are not limited to countries with weak regulation. “Thirty-nine percent of the tailings dam failures worldwide occur in the United States, significantly more than in any other country,” according to Chambers.

Conrad also fails to mention that the same technology for constructing tailings dams that failed in Brazil is now being proposed for the large open pit sulfide mine and tailings dam next to the Menominee River on the Wisconsin-Michigan border. Aquila Resources, supported by Conrad’s NRDA advocacy group, is proposing to use this failed technology.

Al Gedicks is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council in La Crosse.

Judge's decision leaves the Carlin Lake bottled water issue in limbo

Concerned citizens pack the courtroom

Update by Carmen Farwell of the Carlin Lake Association

Weds., May 1, 2019--In yesterday’s hearing in Eagle River, Judge Chip Nielsen did not make a decision regarding the bottling company’s suit against the Vilas County Board of Adjustment. Instead, he talked at length and then sent the issue back to the BOA for reconsideration of the “language of the ordinance."    

Approximately 80 supporters of residential zoning were in the courtroom, and nearly everyone walked out in confusion. Although Judge Nielsen stated that everyone could probably agree on the facts of the case, he still wanted further clarification before ruling on the issue.

The judge began the hearing by noting that “the last time we saw this much interest in a land-use case was regarding four-wheelers.”  He also noted ironically that “a lot of time, attorney’s fees, and people’s time has already been spent on this issue.”  Very early in the proceedings, he informed us that there would not be a “final decision today.”

This week's action follows the very positive ruling that was released last week from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. The three judges confirmed the ruling by Judge Stenz and the district court of November 2017: that pumping and transporting water from the well at the Carlin Club would be a violation of county zoning ordinances, and that the permanent injunction for that business will remain in place. 

The Carlin committee will continue to work with our attorney Dan Bach. Of course, we are resolved to keep our commitment, and we will keep you informed as this process continues.   

Sincere thanks to those who were able to attend the hearing in support of local zoning ordinances, and sincere thanks to all for your continued encouragement!

Carlin Lake on a summer day.

Carlin Lake on a summer day.

Wisconsin Could Face a Mining Disaster

Mining company's proposed tailings dam could cause massive pollution of Lake Michigan

  By Al Gedicks

    Emeritus professor of environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection  Council   

April 20, 2019—On Jan. 25, 2019, a 28-story high tailings dam in Brumadinho, in southeastern Brazil failed, releasing almost 3 billion gallons of sludgy mine waste. The spill flooded nearby homes, submerging cars and buses  under a river of reddish-brown sludge. The death toll so far has risen  to 228 with an estimated 49 people still missing and presumed dead. This is Brazil’s deadliest-ever mining accident.

The same design for storing mine waste, known as the upstream dam  construction method, is now being proposed for a large open pit metallic  sulfide mine and tailings dam next to the Menominee River on the  Wisconsin-Michigan border. While Brazil’s mining agency has already  banned this design from further use, Michigan regulators are poised to  approve this design and risk a catastrophic dam failure that could send toxic wastes into Lake Michigan and threaten drinking water for millions in the Upper Midwest. A coalition of concerned citizens, environmental groups and the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin is determined to prevent this from happening.

What are tailings dams?

Tailings dams are some of the largest human-made structures on earth. Tailings are the waste material left over from the crushing, grinding and  chemical processing of mineral ores. The chemicals used include cyanide.  

The tailings often contain residual minerals – including lead, mercury and arsenic that can be toxic if released to the environment. However, unlike water-retaining dams made of concrete and steel, tailings dams are held back by walls of sand and silt.

Contrary to the claims of safety by the mining industry, tailings dams are  failing with increasing frequency and severity. When they fail, they can  destroy entire communities and livelihoods. The largest mining disaster in Canadian history occurred in August 2014 when the Mount Polley tailings dam failed and released 25 million cubic meters of tailings into the Fraser River watershed in British Columbia. Local emergency response officials warned downstream residents not to drink, cook with, bathe in or come in contact with the effluent.

The Brazilian spill has contaminated 75 miles of the Paraopeba River, where  mud, debris and dead fish have devastated the Pataxo indigenous people  who depend upon the river for drinking, fishing and irrigation. A Pataxo  woman emphasized that the damage from the spill was not limited to the  loss of life and the pollution of the river. “Our relationship with the river is very special because the origin of the Pataxo was born in a drop of water that fell on the ground.”

The Brumadinho dam is owned by the mining giant Vale, the same company  responsible for a tailings dam failure four years earlier at the Samarco mine in Mariana that buried three communities and killed 19 people, leaving hundreds homeless and contaminating hundreds of miles of river valleys with toxic sludge. It was one of the worst environmental  disasters in Brazil’s history.

The tailings dam failures at Brumadinho and Mariana occurred in a  technologically advanced country with a history of mining and with mining companies that had the ability to use state-of-the-art technology to construct and maintain tailings dams. Vale is the largest producer of iron ore and nickel in the world, with massive operations in Brazil. BHP Billiton was a co-owner, with Vale, of the failed tailings dam at Mariana. BHP Billiton, an Anglo-Australian company, is the world’s  largest mining company.

This environmental disaster should raise red flags for Michigan regulators  who have already been besieged by multiple controversies about the impact of Aquila Resources’ Back Forty project on the communities and  environment around this proposed mine.

Aquila Resources’ Proposed “Back Forty” Mine and Tailings Dam

Aquila is a Canadian exploration company that has no experience with mining. It has recently submitted a revised permit application to Michigan’s  Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for its proposed Back Forty  metallic sulfide mine a mere 100 feet from the Menominee River. Although  the Menominee River is an interstate waterway (it forms much of the border between Wisconsin and Michigan and empties into the Green Bay, just above the city named for it), the Wisconsin Department of Natural  Resources has allowed Michigan to assume exclusive jurisdiction over the permitting process.

The proposed mine would produce 70 million tons of acid-producing waste  rock and milled tailings. When sulfide minerals in mines and mining  wastes are exposed to air and water, the chemical reaction produces sulfuric acid and metal pollution known as acid mine drainage (AMD). AMD is toxic to fish and wildlife due to dissolved metals and contaminants such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, copper and many others. These contaminants would threaten the Menominee River and eventually Lake Michigan, the second largest of the Great Lakes, which are the largest source of fresh water on earth.

Downstream communities oppose the Back Forty project

The main revision to Aquila’s mine permit is the expansion of the tailings  dam. Aquila claims that these finely ground chemical-laden wastes, along  with millions of gallons of water mixed in a slurry, can be stored  safely next to the Menominee River in perpetuity. Downstream communities in Wisconsin that depend upon the river for their drinking water, fishing and tourism doubt the company’s assurances of safety. Seven counties, four towns, three cities, and dozens of tribal governments have passed resolutions against the project.

Mining on sacred lands?

The location of the proposed Back Forty mine has special significance for  the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin because it is their original homeland. The Menominee River is named for the Menominee Indians, who trace their origin back thousands of years to when the Ancestral Bear emerged from the mouth of the Menominee River and was transformed into  human form as the first Menominee. They occupied the Menominee River area for millennia, until an 1836 Treaty with the US forced them to cede  their original territory in Michigan. However, the Menominee Nation never gave up its right to protect its traditional cultural resources  that are essential to their identity. The present-day Menominee  reservation is sixty miles southwest of the proposed mine.

The mine site is located on the traditional lands of the Menominee Nation that include prehistoric burial mounds, village sites, raised agricultural beds and dance circles. Similar concerns about harm to  water supplies and the destruction of sacred sites have resulted in a  massive tribal and environmental protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline next to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.

Aftermath of the Brumadrho dam collapse in Brazil. Photo by TV NBR / CC

Aftermath of the Brumadrho dam collapse in Brazil. Photo by TV NBR / CC