Mine disaster could happen to Lake Superior
This Aug. 5 aerial photo shows the damage caused by a tailings pond breach on Lake Polley, British Columbia.
On Aug. 4, more than a billion gallons of mining waste spilled into rivers and creeks from a tailings pond at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley gold and copper mine at the headwaters of the Fraser River watershed in the interior of British Columbia. Indigenous First Nations peoples mostly populate this area. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Co., the volume of the spill would fill 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It is the largest mining disaster in Canadian history.
Tailings are the wastes left over from the processing of mineral ores and often contain residual minerals including lead, mercury and arsenic that can be toxic if released to the environment. Local emergency response officials warned downstream residents not to drink, cook with, bathe in or come in contact with the effluent. The spill also poses a major risk to the region’s salmon-spawning grounds. First Nations leaders ordered people to stop fishing from the area because of health concerns. The latest test results confirm that the mine wastes may harm aquatic life.
Could a similar disaster occur at Gogebic Taconite’s (GTac) open pit iron mine proposed in the Penokee Hills above Lake Superior? If permitted, the mine would be one of the world’s largest and would create over 900 million tons of waste over its 35 years that would have to be safely managed forever.
Proponents of the mine assure us that the mine would not harm the precious waters of Lake Superior downstream from the tailings dam. But the mine disaster at Mount Polley demonstrates that modern tailings dams based on proven engineering principles cannot guarantee our safety. Brian Kynoch, president of Imperial Metals, which operates the Mount Holley mine, told reporters, “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t.”
Under the best of circumstances, the proposed iron mine is a difficult engineering challenge. The presence of sulfides in waste rock poses the risk of acid mine drainage and poisoning local water supplies with dissolved toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead.
However, the ferrous mining bill that GTac helped write has severely weakened Wisconsin’s regulatory authority over the construction and monitoring of mine waste facilities. For example, the law (Act 1) prohibits the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from considering mine waste disposal sites except those next to the mine. The law also removes the requirements for demonstrating that the site selection process minimizes the overall adverse environmental impact of the waste site. This is a mine waste disaster waiting to happen.
The Bad River Chippewa tribe, whose reservation is downstream from the mine, is not going to wait for this disaster to pollute the water, destroy their wild rice beds or the Lake Superior fishery. Six Wisconsin Chippewa tribes, led by Bad River, have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate the environmental effects of GTac’s proposed mine before the plan is reviewed by state regulators and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The tribes say they cannot rely on Wisconsin’s weakened environmental regulations to protect their treaty rights and resources.
In response to the tribes’ EPA request, Gov. Scott Walker said that the state takes a science-based approach to protecting natural resources. What is scientific about prohibiting the DNR from considering whether there are safer places to store mine waste than right next to the mine at the headwaters of the Bad River watershed?
Al Gedicks of La Crosse is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council.