Mining in Wisconsin

Metallic sulfide mining is a major threat to northern Wisconsin. Large areas of the northern woodlands are underlain with Canadian Shield bedrock laced with a rich supply of valuable minerals, which have attracted several mining companies to our region.

In March 2013, Gov. Scott Walker signed the Republican-backed mining bill, 2013 WI Act 1, into law, completing a months-long, all-out campaign by the governor to jump-start a giant iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin that could become the largest open-pit mine in the world.  The legislation will dramatically reshape Wisconsin's mining regulations to ease the permitting process for the open-pit mine that Gogebic Taconite, the mining company, wants to dig just south of Lake Superior. This open-pit mine is expected to be no less than one mile long but could be up to 4 ½ miles long, 1 ½ miles wide, and up to 1,000 feet deep.  Environmentalists maintain the measure guts the state's environmental protections, but Governor Walker and Republican legislators say it will help create thousands of jobs.

Whether the mine will ever open remains a question. The new law does not approve the project, so Gogebic Taconite still must apply and win a state permit. The company also needs federal approval since the mine would impact federal wetlands. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says that permit process could take up to four years.  The Bad River Band of Chippewa Indians maintain the mine would damage traditional wild rice wetlands and that the mine would violate their sovereign nation rights.

Unfortunately, mining in these areas is hazardous, for several reasons:

Toxic Mine Drainage


Wisconsin's northern minerals are bound together with sulfide compounds. When fractured or pulverized, these sulfides are converted by water and air into highly acidic solutions. At the same time, the acids leach toxic minerals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.) out of the rock, to create a toxic mixture that contaminates groundwater and surface run-off. Mining leachate is often devastating to local fish, ducks and wildlife.

This type of runoff has contaminated thousands of miles of rivers and streams in mining districts around the world. Lakes, wetlands, and underground aquifers have also been poisoned. Drinking water supplies have been ruined.

Cyanide Use

Large amounts of cyanide are often imported by mining companies to aid in the extraction and refining of ore. When suspended in water, the cyanide has an affinity for gold, pulling it out of the pulverized ore, allowing the gold to be concentrated. The process produces large amounts of waste, with the risk of cyanide spills or long-term chronic toxicity downstream. A particular concern would be the transportation of many tons of cyanide over Wisconsin's highways or rails, and the potential for catastrophic accidents such as those that have occurred in many other parts of the world where miners use cyanide.

Drained Aquifers

Some of the mine proposals involve deep underground shafts, and these require constant pumping of groundwater to keep the shafts dry.  Ore processing also requires huge amounts of water. The result is a drawdown of the aquifer, which dries up nearby private and public wells. This also damages nearby lakes and streams which are dependent on groundwater recharge to maintain their current water levels.

Huge Disposal Pits

Mining produces large amounts of pulverized waste rock. Companies propose to either create huge surface "tailings pits" or to dump the pulverized waste back down into the mine shafts when they finish mining. This waste is generally acidic and toxic, posing all the risks mentioned above.

Sensitive Waterbodies

Mining would occur in some of the most beautiful and sensitive areas of Wisconsin. Potential mine sites sit at the headwaters of the Wolf River, a federally designated "Wild and Scenic River." The Wolf flows into the Fox River and Green Bay; therefore, an enormous watershed could be impacted if a cyanide accident or mine drainage occurred. Mining proposed now near Lake Superior would impact some of the state’s most pristine waters. Wisconsin’s northwoods are rich in lakes and wetlands, and many residents use wells for drinking water, all of which could be impacted by mine drainage or spills. The soils are thin and the bedrock near the surface, so these waters have very little buffering capacity to help neutralize mine acids.

Air Degradation

Today, northern Wisconsin enjoys high quality air - but if a mining district develops, it will be degraded by increased industrial truck traffic, dust and fumes surrounding the mine sites.

Serious Cultural Damage

Several mine proposals threaten the cultural integrity of Native American tribes in Northern Wisconsin. Their traditions and culture depend on the harvest of wild rice (which is very sensitive to pollution), and fish and game, which could be damaged or ruined entirely by mining in the area. All of the tribes oppose the mining proposals, but Governor Walker and Republican legislators passed the bill anyway.

Major Landscape Changes

Mining would bring an influx of urbanization to a relatively rural area - cutting down forests, expanding roads, building homes and commercial districts. The identity of the "Northwoods" will be lost.

Boom and Bust Economic Upheavals

Mine Drainage

Mining towns typically enjoy a brief burst of prosperity and growth, only to fall apart when the mine closes. Worse yet, mines will often open and close several times before the minerals are played out, causing havoc in the local economy. The companies promise hundreds of new jobs, but these jobs are only temporary and sporadic. Many of the jobs will go to highly skilled mineworkers brought in from other communities, not to local people. The infrastructure costs in the affected towns can be significant for new roads, power lines, sewage treatment, garbage collection, schools, and police and fire protection. When the bust comes, local taxpayers who stay behind will pay high taxes to support an overbuilt community.

Tourism Losses

Tourism is worth more than $10 billion per year in our state. The northern Wisconsin economy depends on tourism for survival.  However, many of the people who visit do so because of Wisconsin's exceptional natural beauty; clean water, clean air, healthy forests and abundant wildlife, fish and game. If this beauty is degraded by mining development and pollution, many tourism jobs will be lost and Wisconsin residents will have a lower quality of life.

For more information:

Wisconsin Mining Bill Passed in 2013 -  

Is there a need for metallic sulfide mining In Wisconsin? Here are the facts.

By Ron James

Since the passing of 2017 WI Act 134, the path to developing mines in Wisconsin has been fast-tracked. If the pro-mining interests are successful, it will only be a matter of time before non-ferrous metallic sulfide mining becomes a reality. Those who favor mining argue that American companies depend upon mining to supply them with metals used in manufacturing and that sulfide mining can be done without harming the environment and local communities. Neither of these arguments is based on the facts.

Who Needs the Minerals that would come from a Metallic Sulfide Mine in Wisconsin?

The primary metals that non-ferrous metallic sulfide mining targets are copper, zinc and lead. American companies that make things out of these metals use recycled starting stock as their input stock whether they melt it, cast it, forge it, or make any fabricated components. American manufacturing has evolved from using unrefined and more contaminated minerals that come from mining → to exclusively using already existing refined and recycled materials. The simple reason for this is that it makes business sense to start with input stock that has already existed in finished product form. It takes far less energy and resources to start with something that only needs to be re-shaped into a new finished form. Consequently, the equipment that would accept the type of unrefined minerals from a metallic sulfide mine has been eliminated from use in America long ago.

So where would the minerals go that would come from a new metallic mine? They would be shipped to far corners of the world where weak environmental policies permit the use of extreme amounts of dirtier energies and cheaper labor to continue to manufacture with technologies abandoned long ago in the developed world. Some of these countries have large sources of low-wage labor and very limited restrictions of how toxic compounds are disposed of. If the minerals were to be mined in Wisconsin, they would be shipped to these far-off countries by way of ocean going vessels. This too adds to the impact on global pollution levels.

The far better long-term solution is to move away from the highly impactful, and environmentally hazardous, activity of mining. It is more efficient to move toward developing recycling technologies that optimize the already mined minerals that simply need to be re-purposed into next life-cycle products. Copper, zinc, lead, as well as iron, can be recycled and re-formed an infinite amount of times without any loss of performance. Comprehensive recycling would also reduce the demand on garbage-type landfill spaces and their resulting negative environmental consequences.

Employment opportunities in an ongoing comprehensive recycling system far outweigh the proposed short-term mining projects. The life span of a mine is often less than ten years. Metals however, will always need to be perpetually recovered, recycled and re-formed into a never ending life-cycle of product offerings. That is why the employment economy of mining is referred to as a ‘boom and bust’ short-term cycle. From a business standpoint, it makes better sense to invest in activities that have a sustainable future rather than a short-term plan with an inevitable end.

What are the Effects of Mining in Environmentally Sensitive Areas?

The consequences of a mining project development on the environment and local communities far outweigh the proposed benefits of mining. Likewise, improving efficiencies and working toward a comprehensive recycling industry, versus mining development, yield some very distinct differences.

With metallic sulfide mining, an applicant has to go through a permitting process that often runs contrary to the wishes of the local residents where the project is proposed. Concerns often include impacts to water quality, human health, property values, the loss of tourism businesses and jobs, negative effects to fish and game species, losses of recreational opportunities, and losses of regional and spiritual identity, as often expressed by local American Indian Tribes. A recent exploratory drilling project in the headwaters region of the Wolf River brought all these concerns to the forefront. The quest to discover enough minerals to justify development of an open-pit mine was met with strong public opposition.

Proponents of mining suggest that it can be done safely. This is simply not supported by the facts. There is a long history of metallic sulfide mining and cleanup from these mines is the most costly tax-payer funded problem in the EPA’s Superfund Cleanup Program. America is nowhere near finished cleaning up problems from mines operated over the last 100-plus years. Problems continue to arise. The facts lead environmental experts to argue that metallic sulfide mining cannot be done safely.

When metallic minerals are excavated from deep within the earth, the disturbance always releases sulfuric acid, arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium into the environment. The target minerals and the toxic compounds are always found in close association to one another. These toxins are mobilized through the ground-water and surface-water pathways by a chemical reaction of sulfuric acid that is not possible to separate from mining activities. This unavoidable process is called “Acid Mine Drainage” or AMD. This reaction directly damages ground-water and drinking-water. Elevated amounts of the released toxins negatively affect the health of people, animals and plants. Once released, these toxins plague the region for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.


Flooding of the Flambeau mine on the banks of the Flambeau River where ground and surface water quality continue to be degraded. ( Photo by Bob Olsgard of Sarona, WI, 1994).

Obtaining these same minerals by way of recycling avoids all of the above mentioned consequences. Once the target minerals have been initially sequestered, they can be re-used over and over again without any loss of performance and without the large scale environmental damage associated with mining new minerals. America has no shortage of copper, zinc, or lead that is not otherwise already participating in the life-cycle product flow of manufactured goods. In other words, American manufacturing companies are not in need of additional base stock starting materials than they already have easy access to. It is simple; new copper wire is made directly from old copper wire.

Excavating large holes in the ground and shipping the unrefined products to far corners of the earth greatly exacerbates the amount of global pollution that could otherwise be avoided. Since there is an abundance of already processed metals available for recycled re-use, it makes no sense to hang on to the outdated technologies of the past and have to seek out far-off locations where they can be utilized. The global footprint of this inefficient plan of shipping heavy cargo around the world only adds to the climate problems the world is painfully enduring. Clearly, the recycling business plan is a wiser course of action – on all fronts.

Do any Companies in Wisconsin Use Mined Metallic Minerals?

Wisconsin has a few primary metal manufacturers that melt metal and form it into shapes. Some of these shapes are basic configurations like flat sheets and plates, round bar and wire, or squares and rectangles. These basic shapes go on to be used in other forming processes like cutting, machining, welding, and stamping. Foundries and forge shops produce unique shapes by casting the molten metal into molds or forging them in impression dies under hydraulic presses and hammers.

In all cases, the only method of producing the starting stock is by loading scrap metal into an electric-arc furnace and melting it. All producers prefer to use the cleanest scrap available. Clean scrap consists of waste left over from the before mentioned other forming processes, and metal retrieved from products that have reached the end of their current life-cycle. It is essential that the scrap be of the same chemistry as the finished product. The electric-arc furnace only has the ability to ‘fine tune’ the chemistry of the melt with small amounts of alloying products that are added to the melt while the metal is molten. The electric-arc furnace does not have the ability to refine a multitude of non-metal contaminants out of the melt. So if an attempt was made to load the furnace with an unrefined product – such as what comes out of the processing facility at a metallic sulfide mine - it would be incompatible and the process of producing molten metal would fail. The product available at the mine site is so full of non-metal contaminants (rock, dirt, water, sulfur, other elements, etc.) that it requires greater amounts of energy and processing. The abilities of modern electric-arc furnaces used today are intentionally designed to utilize only high quality scrap – nothing else. The type of processing needed to process what comes out of a mine facility was abandoned long ago in America. American metal producers realized it was far more efficient to start with a product that had already gone through the more costly energy, labor and resource consuming processes. That product that everyone in Wisconsin and America now uses is scrap. No company in Wisconsin would use anything coming out of a Wisconsin mine!

According to the European Copper Institute, recycling copper uses up to 85% less energy than primary production. With recycling the process only involves: collecting scrap, melting, alloying and forming. Recycling avoids all of the following energy intensive and environmentally damaging steps: mining, grinding, concentrating, roasting, smelting, converting, anode casting, electrolytic refining, and leaching. At the end of all these processes the copper still has to go through all the same energy inputs (melting, alloying and forming) that recycled copper does.

The International Copper Study Group states that Copper recycling and waste management have become an important part of the supply chain, keeping resources local, creating local jobs, saving on landfill site space and incentivizing the recycling of other materials. Fifty percent of the copper used in Europe comes from recycling. This reveals that copper requirements are increasingly being met by metals recycling. This win-win situation is helping to supply the ever-increasing demand for the metal (+250% since the 1960s) while, at the same time, lessening the environmental impact of its production and ensuring sustainability and availability for generations to come.

According to the Copper Development Association, over half the copper consumed in the United States is derived from recycled scrap, and this percentage is growing. About 55% of this scrap is "new" scrap, such as turnings from machining operations, and 45% is "old" scrap, such as used electrical cable (wire from building demolition) or auto radiators. This leaves room for tremendous growth opportunities in the recycling industry, through advancing technologies, to fulfill more and more of Americas need for copper with recycled materials. Wisconsin manufacturing companies would not utilize minerals from mines operated in Wisconsin. The factual costs and consequences to the local communities and environment do not support operating metallic sulfide mines in Wisconsin.

The future of metal manufacturing continues to point in a single direction → recycling.

© Clean Water Action Council

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