The Multinational Monitor



Tailing Exxon
and Rio Algom

by Al Gedicks
and Zoltan Grossman

IN 1986, AFTER A DECADE of strong local opposition, Exxon Minerals withdrew its application to construct a large underground mine next to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa reservation in northeastern Wisconsin. Nine years later, Exxon and Canada-based Rio Algom have formed the Crandon Mining Company (CMC). CMC filed a 10,000-page permit application to extract 55 million tons of zinc-copper sulfide ore at the site over 25 years, enough to yield more than $4 billion worth of zinc and copper. But the latest efforts of the mining companies to sell local communities on the project have been hindered by activists, who have publicized the unflattering track records that these corporations have acquired elsewhere in the Americas.

In 1975, Texas-based Exxon Minerals discovered one of the 10 largest zinc-copper sulfide deposits in North America adjacent to the Mole Lake Reservation, near Crandon, Wisconsin. Situated at the headwaters of the Wolf River in Forest County, the proposed mine is the largest of a series of metallic sulfide deposits planned for development in the northern part of the state. The project's impact would extend far beyond its 550-acre site. When exposed to air or water, metallic sulfides produce sulfuric acids. The ore also contains such poisonous heavy metals as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium. Over its lifetime, the mine would generate an estimated 44 million tons of wastes. If dumped at one site, this waste would form the largest toxic waste dump in Wisconsin.

Janet Smith, a field officer from the Green Bay office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, has criticized CMC for failing to acknowledge that its operations would contaminate the groundwater in the area for as long as 9,000 years. Dr. David Blowes, a mine waste expert with the Waterloo Centre for Groundwater Research in Ontario, Canada, says "all of the tailings [waste] produced will have an extremely high-acid generating potential." The mine's half-mile-deep shafts would drain groundwater supplies much as a syringe draws blood from a patient, drawing down water levels over an area of four square miles.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing at Mole Lake in early 1995 to hear comments on the Exxon/Rio Algom proposal. Tribal members unanimously opposed the proposal, saying it would threaten the wild rice they harvest from the reservation's Rice Lake. Charles Ackley, the son of the late Chief Willard Ackley, makes a living harvesting wild rice on the lake, which he says the mine would ruin. "East of us here, where this mine is supposed to take place, is all spring fed," he says. "If they start fooling around underground, there are going to be a lot of lakes going dry east of us here. And suppose Exxon taps into our underground water spring? What is going to happen to our water situation in our community?"


Joining the Sokaogon Chippewa are the nearby Menominee, Potawatomi, Stockbridge-Munsee and Oneida nations, which are also concerned that they would be harmed by the mining operations. All five tribes are working with environmental and sport-fishing groups through a broad-based campaign called WATER, the Watershed Alliance toward Environmental Responsibility. Some participants in this campaign are not traditional allies. Conflict over treaty spearfishing rights in Wisconsin between 1984 and 1992 pitted sport-fishing groups against the Chippewa. But the mining threat has brought Native Americans and sport-fishing groups together to protect common resources. "If the mine were to go in, it would wipe out the Wolf River trout stream and create a pile of tailings that in 50 years would be a Superfund [hazardous waste] site," says Herb Buettner, owner of the Wild Wolf Inn and president of the Wolf River chapter of Trout Unlimited.

But Crandon Mining Company President Jerry Goodrich disagrees. "If we can't protect the Wolf, there'll be no Crandon mine," he says.

Indeed, many people in Wisconsin agree that the river takes precedence over corporate mining ambitions. The Wolf River is at the center of the northeastern Wisconsin tourist economy and the meeting ground between Indians, environmentalists and anglers. It is the state's largest whitewater trout stream, supporting brown, brook and rainbow trout fisheries. More than 50,000 tourists visit the area each year to enjoy trout fishing, whitewater rafting and canoeing.

The lower half of the Wolf is a National Wild and Scenic River. Over Exxon's opposition, the state of Wisconsin granted "Outstanding Resource Water" (ORW) status to the Wolf River in 1988. This designation means that any water discharged into the Wolf must be at least as clean as the river water. Exxon's manager of mineral regulatory affairs, James D. Patton, objected to the classification because he said it "could create a significant potential roadblock to any future resumption of the Crandon project." Later, the company said it could comply with ORW standards.

This was not the first time that the corporate partners behind CMC have encountered determined opposition from a diverse coalition. The first CMC public relations manager, J. Wiley Bragg, was a veteran of the Exxon Valdez public relations operation in Alaska. Earlier, his successor, R. E. Diotte, had promoted the image of Rio Algom in a uranium mining controversy that plagued that company in Ontario. In each of these public relations campaigns, the leading corporate adversaries were Native peoples, environmentalists and fishing groups.

Among those who lobbied for the ORW classification was the Menominee Nation. The Wolf flows through the Menominee reservation, 35 miles downstream from the proposed mine. "The Wolf River is the lifeline of the Menominee people and central to our existence. We will let no harm come to the river," says Menominee Chair John Teller. The state government has consistently opposed treaty-rights suits by both the Chippewa and Menominee. While the treaties do not reserve mineral rights, they do guarantee Native access to off-reservation natural resources, such as fish and wild rice, which could be endangered by sulfide mining.

Exxon's record with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska has not reassured people in Wisconsin about the company's ability to manage a large mining venture in an ecologically sensitive watershed. Prior to the first public hearing on Exxon's mine permit application, WATER ran newspaper ads in the Crandon area, asking, "Will the Wolf River Be Exxon's Valdez? What if it happened here?" More than 300 people came to the hearing, with almost everyone who testified expressing concern for the Wolf River watershed.

Bringing international attention to their battle, the Sokaogon Chippewa invited the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) to hold its fifth annual "Protecting Mother Earth Conference" on the Mole Lake Reservation in June 1994 in conjunction with a regional gathering coordinated by the Midwest Treaty Network. IEN conferences bring together community-based indigenous activists from throughout the Americas and the Pacific Islands to work together to protect indigenous lands from contamination and exploitation. IEN's previous efforts helped grassroots activists defeat a 5,000-acre landfill on the Rosebud Lakota Reservation in South Dakota and a proposed incinerator and an asbestos landfill on Diné (Navajo) land in Arizona.

Shameful record

The Mole Lake gathering established a Wisconsin Review Commission to review the track records of Exxon and Rio Algom around the world. The commission included groups representing farmers, churches, workers, civil rights activists, women, small businesses, tribal governments and recreational groups. A similar commission was assembled in the 1970s by the Black Hills Alliance to investigate the track records of uranium mining companies that wanted to mine in the sacred Black Hills of the Lakota (Sioux).

The panel, chaired by Wisconsin Secretary of State Douglas LaFollette, heard testimony from Native people who came from Alaska, Colombia, Ontario and New Mexico. Testimony focused on people who have been directly affected by Exxon's mining and oil drilling activities and its chemical and oil leaks. Exxon was invited to comment on the draft report, but chose not to do so.

Nearly all of the testimony before the commission was delivered by Native peoples from North and South America, which reflects the fact that a disproportionate amount of resource extraction occurs on Native lands. "I never believed once that anyone could ever kill the ocean," testified Native Eyak fisher Dune Lankard, "So when [the Exxon Valdez spill] happened I was in shock. How do you compensate somebody for taking everything away from you?" Commercial fishers lost millions of dollars from canceled salmon and herring runs; 1994 net permits sold at one-sixth of the cost of pre-spill permits because of catch reductions. Exxon was fined $5 billion in punitive damages for economic losses from the spill in 1995. The company is appealing the fine.

Serpent River Ojibwa band councilor Keith Lewis testified on Rio Algom's Elliot Lake uranium mines in Ontario, Canada. He said the Serpent River used to be one of the greatest sturgeon rivers in the province, before it was almost wiped out by radioactive and heavy metal poisons from the mines. The only reason that walleye are still present is that the Serpent is freshly stocked each year, he said.

In 1976, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment reported that 18 lakes in the Serpent River system had been contaminated by uranium mining by Rio Algom and another Ontario-based company, Denison Mines. Despite several years of clean-up efforts, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources biologist Will Samis says that the river has yet to fully recover.

Roger Payne, environmental and decommissioning manager of Rio Algom's Elliott Lake Division acknowledges that "a lack of adequate understanding" on the part of the company in the 1950s "had a detrimental effect on the watershed." But Payne says that "once that was noted, the necessary remedial measures were taken" and "there has been no long-term, lasting environmental degradation" to the watershed. "Elliot Lake and the surrounding area is one of the most beautiful in the world," he says. "We're a super retirement community, with the closure of the mine."

Lewis testified that he is one of many former Elliot Lake miners who now have serious health problems such as asthma, bronchitis or cancer. The Ontario Health Ministry acknowledges that the miners' lung cancer rates are between 300 percent and 500 percent above that of the population at large. London-based Survival International, an international Native-rights organization, named Rio Tinto Zinc, which had been Rio Algom's parent company, as one of the 10 worst companies in 1992 in terms of damage done to tribal lands in the Americas.

Some of the most damning testimony came from Armando Valbuena Gouriyú, a Wayuu Indian from the Guajira peninsula on the northern tip of Colombia, where Exxon and the Colombian government operate the El Cerrejón open pit coal mine (see "Exxon Coal Project Leaves Colombian Firms Empty Handed," Multinational Monitor, July 1983). It is the largest coal mine in this hemisphere. Valbuena worked at the mine from 1983 until Exxon fired him for his union organizing activities in 1988. Mining had a devastating effect on the lives of 90 Wayuu apushis (matrilineal kinship groupings) who saw their houses, corrals, land and cemeteries flattened for a road from El Cerrejón to the new port of Puerto Bolivar. The excavation of the open pit caused adjoining rivers, streams and drinking wells to dry up. Colombian army troops were called in three times to break miner strikes. Exxon also earned a place on Survival International's 10 worst list because of El Cerrejón.

The former vice-president of operations at El Cerrejón, Jerry Goodrich, is now president of CMC. "Jerry Goodrich promised us jobs and prosperity and instead worked to destroy our traditional ways and forced us from our land," Valbuena testified. "This must not happen again. ...To allow this mine is to disappear from the earth."

Goodrich, CMC and its public relations firm declined to respond to repeated calls from Multinational Monitor.

The commission released its report March 24, 1995, the sixth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill. Members of the commission urged the Wisconsin legislature to approve "bad actor" legislation, which would require the state to consider a company's past performance before permitting it do business in Wisconsin. Intense mining industry lobbying has prevented passage of the bill for the last several years; the bill now is stalled in a hostile legislative committee. "Past violations," La Follette said, "are taken into account for everything from driver's licenses to gaming licenses, but not permits for potentially harmful mining developments."

To counteract negative publicity about Exxon's track record, CMC officials have been meeting with newspaper editorial boards all over the state. Among their complaints is that they have not been able to meet with the Sokaogon Chippewa to discuss the mine. But the Sokaogon say there is nothing to discuss."Talking with them is participating in our own destruction," says tribal judge Fred Ackley. "Our goal is to stop this project."

Howling Wolf

In April 1995, the national conservation group American Rivers added the Wolf River to its list of the nation's 20 most threatened rivers due to the pollution threat posed by the proposed CMC mine. This threat had been documented by the Menominee along with the River Alliance of Wisconsin and the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin. The day after American Rivers designated the Wolf as a threatened river, Exxon announced that it was abandoning its plans to dump treated wastewater into the Wolf River. Instead, the company said that it would build a 40-mile pipeline and divert the wastewater into the Wisconsin River near Rhinelander. Because the Wisconsin River is not as clean as the Wolf, the company would not have to spend as much treating the discharge.

Mine opponents said the new plan threatens pollution of both the Wolf and Wisconsin rivers. David Blouin, a spokesperson for the Mining Impact Coalition, said the threat to the Wolf would remain because tailings would still be stored at the headwaters of the Wolf. In addition, the plan could actually increase groundwater depletion in the area of the mine because of the amount of water necessary to pump the wastes to Rhinelander. Exxon's revised discharge plan marks a retreat from its previously stated position that it could meet the stringent requirements for discharge into an Outstanding Resource Water.

The mine permit process is just moving into high gear. In June, CMC filed the first 10,000 pages of its environmental impact report with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, with another 10,000 pages following in August.

Wisconsin officials are bitterly divided over CMC's mining application. Laura Sutherland is an attorney handling the CMC proposal for the Wisconsin Public Intervenor's office, the state's public environmental watchdog on water issues. Sutherland has retained three scientists to evaluate CMC's submissions on the project's waste storage and groundwater impact. But Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and his chief aide, James Klauser, a former Exxon lobbyist, have eliminated funding for Sutherland's office in the state budget that was recently approved by the Republican-dominated legislature. "The elimination of the Public Intervenor's office means that the public will be without an effective voice in the decision-making process," says Bob Schmitz, president of the Wolf River Watershed Alliance.

Even if the state approves CMC's mining proposal, indigenous groups have pledged to continue their struggle. Bill Koenen, a Sokaogon tribal member and a national council member of the IEN testified at the Army Corps of Engineers hearing that, "Our children will be right behind us to help us defend our sacred land and wild rice beds." In March 1994, more than 400 people from around the state rallied at the State Capitol in Madison to protest the proposed mine.

A bigger rally at CMC corporate headquarters in Rhinelander is being planned for May 1996. Opponents hope to build sufficient opposition to convince corporate investors that the economic benefits of the proposed mine are not worth its political costs.

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