The Myth of Sulfide Mining Without Contamination

Jul 26, 2023 | Mining

A new report, “The Minnesota Prove It First Bill and the Myth of Sulfide Ore Mining without Environmental Contamination” by mining engineer Steve Emerman, supports what River Alliance of Wisconsin and our partners have said for years. There isn’t a sulfide mine that hasn’t polluted water. Download the report.

Emerman’s report was prepared for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and looks at nine mining projects in the United States and Canada, including the Flambeau mine in Wisconsin and the Eagle mine in Michigan. While the projects are used by mining advocates as examples of the “cleanest” metallic mines, all of them have operated with serious environmental pollution concerns. He concludes his report with a recommendation that the Minnesota legislature pass a “prove it first” law, similar to Wisconsin’s 1997 Act 171. 

Wisconsin’s Prove It First law

In the late 90s, Wisconsin had a model law that required mining companies to prove their metallic mining projects could operate without polluting water. Because the process of sulfide mining is so closely linked to water pollution, the law was effectively a ban which clean water advocates called the Mining Moratorium Law. 

The Wisconsin State Legislature approved the law with overwhelming bipartisan support (29-3 in the Senate and 91-6 in the Assembly) and Wisconsin’s Prove It First law was signed by Governor Tommy Thompson as Act 171 in 1997. Though then-Representative Scott Walker voted in favor of the bill, as Governor he repealed the law through Act 134 in 2017.

In his report, Emerman asks if the people of Minnesota should bear the risk of water contamination when we know that metallic mines have never operated without polluting. Even with mining companies’ promises of new technology or extraction techniques, Emerman says, “there is no principle of justice that would require the people of Minnesota to be the testing ground for new technologies for sulfide ore mining. Being the testing ground means accepting not only risks, but unknown risks.”

The risks are great, but pro-mining advocates keep trying to make mining appealing when we know the facts. 

Mining only creates economic gains for companies, not local communities

Most mines, especially newer mines, only operate for a short time. The Flambeau mine operated for four years and the Eagle mine will operate for 12 years before it plans to close in 2026. Most contemporary mining jobs are filled by skilled and trained specialists. Modern mining is very different from the “glory days” of vast, multi-decade underground mines that employed large numbers of people. Now local communities must bear the cost of environmental degradation while the economic gains are exported to the owners and stockholders of mining companies.

Mining projects in Wisconsin will not support green energy

Current proposals in Wisconsin are for gold, not metals or minerals that are needed for a green economy. There are no deposits of critical minerals of value to “green mineral needs.” Additionally, the United States Geological Service has rejected adding copper to the federal Critical Minerals List, saying that copper was not at risk for supply issues. While Green Light Metals wants to mine the Bend and Reef deposits in Wisconsin, those projects are for-profit gold mines, not for green economy minerals. Wisconsin also does not have any known deposits of lithium.

Mining makes climate change worse

With all the recent talk of “green mining” by the mining industry, the truth about how mining makes climate change worse has largely been ignored. Mining is very energy intensive and uses fossil fuels. But they also destroy the carbon sinks of wetlands and forests, releasing carbon and methane into the atmosphere. Our neighbors in Minnesota have considered the greenhouse gas emissions of mines. WaterLegacy looked at the impact of PolyMet’s mine over the years. Emerman also spoke with the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness about the release of carbon through the destruction of peat land. 

Learn why metallic mining in Wisconsin is a problem. Watch our video that explains how our geology and water resources make Wisconsin a bad place for sulfide mining

Because Wisconsin is a water state with more lakes and river miles than most other states, our regenerative farming and outdoor and tourism industries are what will sustain us into the future. In fact, tourism dollars are breaking records in Wisconsin. This depends on clean and pristine water. It would be foolish to pursue a mythic, polluting economy that would ruin our most sustainable economic engine.

– Johnson Bridgwater, Water Advocates Organizer


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