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Wisconsin mine may hold key to controversial Minnesota project

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Flambeau welcome sign
A sign welcomes visitors to the reclaimed site of the Flambeau mine, Ladysmith, Wis.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

A closed Wisconsin mine is playing a prominent role in the ongoing debate over mining for metals like copper and nickel, a debate that's currently raging in Northern Minnesota.   

Depending on whom you talk to, the Flambeau mine near Ladysmith, Wisconsin, is either a perfect example how metals like copper can be mined without harming the environment, or it's a sad example of regulators ignoring serious problems.  

To look at the Flambeau mine today, you'd have no idea there was a deep pit, huge rock piles, and machinery all over the place here fifteen years ago.

In the autumn sun, it's an idyllic outdoor scene.  Young saplings poke through the high prairie grass waving in the breeze.   Public hiking and horse trails run next to cattails and sparkling ponds.

Still, Laura Furtman said the scenery just hides a serious problem.

"The reclamation at the Flambeau Mine site is grass over a grave," she said.

After mining tons of copper, and millions of dollars worth of gold and silver, Flambeau Mining Company filled a 220-foot deep pit back in and restored the site.

The Flambeau mine was a fraction the size of what's projected for the PolyMet mine, the NorthMet proposal.

Furtman is a member of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, a group long critical of the Flambeau mine project.

"It's fine to see the plants that have been put on the surface and that are growing on the surface," Furtman said, "but in a way it diverts attention from ... the main issue: what's happening to the water."

Furtman's group filed notice last summer they intend to sue because there are elevated levels of metals in a small stream, and in a monitoring well between the former mine and the Flambeau River 140 feet away.

And, Furtman said, if she's right, that pollution spells trouble for a much bigger project in Minnesota -- PolyMet Mining company's plans to mine and process similar metals near Hoyt Lakes.   The Flambeau ore was shipped to Canada for processing, but PolyMet will extract precious metals on site, leaving a finely ground waste known as tailings.

"The Flambeau mine was a fraction the size of what's projected for the PolyMet mine, the NorthMet proposal," Furtman said. "The Flambeau mine didn't have the fine tailings that are known to generate all these problems with water pollution.  Yet, even at the Flambeau mine site we do have significant ground water pollution."

Monitoring well
This monitoring well is located just outside the former pit of the Flambeau mine, on the side of the Flambeau River. Activists with the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council say there have been statistically significant violations of the Flambeau Mine permit standards (for metals like manganese) recorded in this well.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Testing at the Flambeau site has shown manganese in a monitoring well four times higher than expected.    Copper in a stream exceeds Wisconsin water quality standards.  

Phillip Fauble, mining program coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the metals don't violate Flambeau's permit.

"[Is] iron and manganese high in that well?  Yes, it is.  Is it higher than they predicted?  Yes it is," Fauble said. "However, we've evaluated that, and our opinion is that even at these higher levels, they still meet the conditions of the permit."

That's because the metals are not detected at the Flambeau River, just downhill from the monitoring well.   The permit is designed to protect the waters of the river. 

But critics say that's a bunch of semantics intended to give the mining company a pollution pass.   Wisconsin Resource Protection Council consultant David Chambers said the public should be concerned.

Laura Furtman
Laura Furtman is a member of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and a party to a threatened lawsuit over alleged pollution coming from the Flambeau mine.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"If regulators and mining companies are willing to bend the law to suit their interpretation of the situation," Chambers said, "where does that stop?"

But there's one thing neither side disputes.   There are still fish in the river, and the water hasn't turned a brilliant orange or purple. 

In the western United States, runoff from badly run mines has turned rivers all but lifeless and discolored the water.    The metals mined are found in a rock that reacts with oxygen to form sulfuric acids.   At the Flambeau mine, they mixed limestone with mine waste rock, and that has apparently neutralized sulfuric acids -- so far, at least. 

"We're very proud of this project," said Jana Murphy, the Flambeau Mining Company's environmental and reclamation manager.  She said the Flambeau mine and PolyMet's Minnesota project are very different mines, but some lessons carry over.

Diversion culvert
This culvert directs surface water into a creek called "Stream C." The Wisconsin Resources Protection Council contends that levels of copper in the stream exceed Wisconsin surface water standards for the metal.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"It does provide an example of how, with modern mining practices, you can operate a mine, and you can protect the environment, and you can benefit the local communities," Murphy said.

She said this type of mining's poor history doesn't mean it lacks a future.

Five months have passed since the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council indicated it was planning to sue; but the threatened lawsuit has yet to materialize.

The group's attorney just heard from the state outlining the DNR's contention that the mining company and DNR have broken no laws.

Wisconsin Resources Protection Council attorney Glenn Stoddard said that remains to be seen, but that the state's letter at least acknowledges there is some pollution.

"It's pretty clear on both sides of this that there are levels of pollution in both the surface water and ground water that are of concern; and the question kind of boils down to how to deal with those issues," he said.

Stoddard said his group is still deciding whether to pursue the matter in court.