Environmental Justice Case Study: Proposed Crandon Mine in Northeast Wisconsin

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The Problem

In Crandon, Wisconsin there is a conflict over a proposal by the Crandon Mining Company to build an immense copper and zinc mine near the Mole Lake Sokaogan Chippewa reservation (Crandon Mining Company is composed of the Exxon Corporation and Rio Algom Ltd.). Their plan is to put a mine on 865 acres of Wisconsin's North Woods, a region of dense forests, numerous wetlands, and rivers (including the Wolf and Wisconsin Rivers). This has turned into one of the country's fiercest grass-roots environmental face-offs. CMC contends that the mine would help the area's economy, and would not pollute its streams and lakes.

The tribal leaders believe that neither Exxon nor its partner could operate an acid mine that would not pollute or pose any environmental threats. Due to the pollution caused by acid mines in the past (many of which are now Superfund sites, such as Iron Mountain, CA) the environmental safety of the CMC mine has been disputed. The tribes have rejected appeals to meet with CMC, as they believe that talking with them would be participating in their own destruction. The tribe also contends that Exxon is considering at least 10 other mineral deposits for development in the northern Wisconsin area, a number the company does not dispute. Halting the Crandon project, they argue, could prevent the development of other big mines.

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Wisconsin's North Woods contains more than 20 bodies of surface water that exist within one mile of the proposed mine, in addition to numerous wetlands and springs. Here, the Wolf River flows south through these Woods for about 250 miles. All this is part of the Great Lakes Basin, which is the largest freshwater ecosystem on the planet. In addition, there are over 750 plant and animal species on and around the area of the proposed mine site. More than 50 of these species are listed as rare and endangered by the state. These include Lake Sturgeon, which spawns in the Wolf River, and Bald Eagles, which nest and fish along the river.

Exxon discovered the zinc and copper deposit in Crandon in 1975. In 1986, it temporarily abandoned its plan to open the mine, citing low mineral prices. However, neither the company nor the tribes expected the withdrawal to be final. In 1993, Exxon announced that it had joined with Rio Algom Ltd., a Canadian mining company, to form the Crandon Mining Company to continue pursuing the mining project. In February of 1994, the two companies notified the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that they intended to acquire the 40 permits needed to begin construction. The company has spent millions of dollars on studies and environmental impact statements to prove to the state and the tribe that the mine would be environmentally safe.

However, the Chippewa believe that the mine would ruin a way of life dependent on clean water to provide fish and wild rice. Further, they believe that acid mining is inherently dangerous to the area because the minerals in the proposed mine (zinc, copper, and lead) are sulfides. These minerals are known to have detrimental drainage effects. They form acids in the water, poison fish, and contribute to elevated levels of lead in the water, which could result in lead poisoning of children. Thus, the Chippewas are vehemently against the mine proposal. Joining the Chippewas in opposition are other tribes in the area, such as the Menominee tribe and the Forest County Potawatomi tribe. The Menominee in particular are opposed to the mine because they are located downstream from the proposed tailings location, and thus face environmental threats to their reservation. In addition, some small business owners in the area argue that a project of such great magnitude - with giant pulverizing mills and shafts as deep as 2,800 feet - could wreck a healthy rural community based on forestry, recreation, and light manufacturing.

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Key Actors

Menominee Indian tribe of Wisconsin

Menominee Indian tribe of Wisconsin is concerned about all aspects of the mine, in particular the effects of the proposed tailings site at the headwaters of the Wolf River. The reservation is located downstream, along the Wolf River, from the proposed mine.

Stockbridge-Munsee Community

Their reservation lies within the Wolf River Watershed. While the proposed mine will not directly impact them, they do share concerns with the more affected tribes, and join in supporting them in opposition to the mine.

Forest County Potawatomi

Forest County Potawatomi is concerned with all aspects of the mine, in particular airborne particulates and degradation of ecological and cultural resources.

Sokaogon Chippewa Community

The Mole Lake Reservation is situated closest to the proposed mine. They are concerned about surface water and groundwater contamination, and the effects of the mine on wild rice cultivation. They oppose the mine.

Wolf Watershed Education Project

This project is a coalition of grassroots groups that held a speaking tour and rally to raise awareness of the project and of the tribes' struggle.

Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission

The Commission has been providing some technical assistance to the tribes. They have been doing socioeconomic reports and policy analysis.

Crandon Mining Company (Exxon Corporation/Rio Algom Ltd.)

CMC believes that the mine is environmentally safe, and will not leak. They feel that the mine will bring revenue to the community, increase employment, and improve the overall well-being of the community.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5

The EPA is responsible for reviewing permits submitted to the WDNR and the USACE, as well as federal and state EIS's. They have been involved in reviewing the Crandon Mine project since October of 1995. The EPA also has federal trust responsibilities to the tribes.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR)

The WDNR's involvement has mainly been with authorization of permits. They are also preparing their own Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)

The USACE also has federal trust responsibilities to the tribes. Their involvement in the project has been in reviewing impacts to the surrounding wetlands and the formulation of an EIS.

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The Native American tribes utilized a number of strategies to gain support for their cause. One strategy that they used was a 12-day speaking tour by the Wolf Watershed Education Project. This tour took place at various locations along the Wolf and Wisconsin Rivers, and culminated in a rally. (Wisconsin State Journal, May 7, 1996). Another rally was also held earlier in the struggle at the state capitol in Madison. This rally took place in March of 1994 and drew more than 400 people calling for the DNR to produce an EIS that assessed the consequences of the growing mining district in their area. (The Progressive, June 1994).

Another strategy was to spread information about the project on the internet. The Menominee tribe constructed an informative web page on the proposed mine, which included a discussion of the environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural effects of the proposed mine, and of acid mining in general. They also urged people to write their congresspersons, the EPA, Wisconsin DNR, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to voice their opposition to the mine.

Currently, the Menominee and the other affected tribes (including the Sokaogon Chippewa and Forest County Potawatomi) are working with these regulatory agencies, as well as with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, primarily on the technical aspects of the mine. In addition, the tribes have been using federal and private grants and casino revenue to file lawsuits and hire experts to evaluate the mine. They have also used information on past acid mines as evidence of the possible environmental and socioeconomic consequences that may ensue.

Crandon Mining Company has also been utilizing their own strategies. For one, they have been mobilizing political and business support for the construction of the mine. The CMC has also claimed that their studies on the impacts of the mine over the last few years has shown that the proposed mine will pose no major threats to the area or to residents. Further, they claim that the communities will receive economic benefits from the mine. They have been attempting to show these positive effects in their EIS's that they have prepared for the EPA and WDNR.

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At present, the EPA, Wisconsin DNR, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are reviewing the EIS's and other technical documents from Crandon Mining Company, as well as information from the tribes. A decision on whether the mine will be constructed will not be made for another two years. Thus, a final solution to the struggle is still far into the future.

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The tribes should mobilize collectively instead of separately. This will make their cause much stronger and more visible. In addition, there could be more research into similar struggles to ascertain strategies used in similar situations. For CMC and for the regulatory agencies, the long term costs of the mine should be considered. They should also take into account the effects of past similar mines as a reminder that acid mines are not safe. There should be very strict regulation, monitoring, and enforcement if the mine proposal passes. CMC should be held accountable, and therefore, the burden of any negative effects of the mine should be shifted onto CMC.

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EIS - Environmental Impact Statement. These are to be prepared for federal actions that may affect the quality of the environment. They include detailed explanations of environmental consequences.

Acid Mines - Mines where the majority of minerals are sulfides (as opposed to iron mines). These minerals, when exposed to water or air during the mining process, may produce sulfuric acids and other dangerous poisons.

Tailings - Waste rock from mines; rock that is left over after the desired ore is mined.

Wild Rice - A source of sustenance for the tribes. It is a traditional staple item in their diet, and it is often grown and harvested in water.

Groundwater Drawdown - A drop in water levels of lakes and streams caused by the pumping of groundwater from a mine.

Closure and Reclamation - When a mining operation is complete, the mine closes (closure). The mine may then go through a restoration process (reclamation) to restore the area to stable conditions.

Median Income - The average income of the whole community.

Per Capita Income - The average personal or individual income.

Superfund - also known as CERCLA. This act, passed in 1980, is "to provide for liability, compensation, cleanup, and emergency response for hazardous substances released into the environment and the cleanup of inactive hazardous waste disposal sites" (preamble). Its goal is to clean up all of the hazardous waste sites in the country.

Sulfides - minerals that contain sulfur.

Toxics Minerals contained in Acid Mines and their drainage effects -

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Key Contacts

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Contact: Daniel Cozza, Regional Team Manager
(312) 886-7252

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Contact: Bill Tans
(608) 266-3524
State Dedicated Phone Line: (608) 267-7534

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Contact: Dave Ballman
(612) 290-5373

Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin
Contact: Doug Cox, Water Resource Technician
(715) 799-4937
Web site: http://www.menominee.com/a-one.mccombs/nomine.html#top

Sokaogon Chippewa Community
Contact: John Griffin
(715) 478-7604

Forest County Potawatomi Community
Contact: Christine Hansen
(715) 478-7209

Stockbridge-Munsee Community
Contact: Greg Bunker
(715) 793-4363

Crandon Mining Company
Contact: Don Moe
(715) 365-1453
Web site: http://www.crandonmine.com

Indigenous Environmental Network
Not directly related to the Crandon Mine Project, but is a great source for other Native American Environmental issues.
Web site: http://oraibi.alphacdc.com/ien/

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