Despite industry claims that the Flambeau Mine has succeeded in protecting the environment from adverse impact, the facts prove otherwise.
In 2007 Roscoe Churchill and I published a book about the Flambeau Mine: The Buzzards Have Landed! – The Real Story of the Flambeau Mine.
When assembling information for the book, Roscoe and I did extensive open records requests of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) to obtain the environmental monitoring data submitted by Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) to the Department. We scrutinized the data and created numerous tables and charts that expose the serious nature of both groundwater and surface water pollution at the mine site.
You can read for yourself by going to Chapter 125 of our book:
One disclaimer: On pages 1032-1037 of Chapter 125 (in the section entitled “A Story of PALS”), you will find information about how: (1) Wisconsin’s mining laws require the establishment of a so-called “Intervention Boundary” at mine sites to help regulate groundwater pollution; and (2) I was told in 2003 by Larry Lynch, WDNR’s chief mining regulator at the time, that an “Intervention Boundary” had never been established for the Flambeau Mine. Roscoe and I found Mr. Lynch’s statement hard to believe (and included comments to that effect in Chapter 125), but we nevertheless accepted what he told us at face value and incorporated information to that effect in our book. Only later (at the time of a contested case hearing over FMC’s request for a Certificate of Completion for mine reclamation in 2007) did I learn that Mr. Lynch had steered us wrong and that an Intervention Boundary indeed had been established for the Flambeau Mine when permits were granted in January 1991 (see the bottom of page 92 of the Flambeau Mine Permit for the specifications).
It is interesting to note that, as of 2007 (when The Buzzards Have Landed! went to print) one of the monitoring wells along the Intervention Boundary at the Flambeau Mine site (MW-1000PR) had signficantly exceededed the Flambeau Mine permit standard for manganese on a routine basis. This is discussed on pages 1052-1059 of Chapter 125 (in the section entitled “MW-1000PR – the Well to Watch for the Next 4,000 Years). As of 2010, a second intervention boundary well (MW-1000R) has also registered manganese levels far in excess of the permit standard.
As far as I know, the Wisconsin DNR has done nothing about the permit violations, even though: (1) as of the time of this posting (March 2015), the exceedances have continued to persist; (2) the two wells are very close to the Flambeau River (MW-1000PR is about 125 feet from the river, and MW-1000R is about 170 feet); and (3) according to Kennecott/Rio Tinto, the direction of groundwater flow is toward the river through fractured bedrock
Surface water pollution in a small tributary of the Flambeau River (identified as “Stream C” on company drawings) that receives contaminated stormwater runoff from the Flambeau Mine site is also discussed in Chapter 125 of our book. Toxicity standards for copper set by WDNR to protect fish and other aquatic species have been exceeded on a routine basis in this tributary, which led to a lawsuit being filed against Flambeau Mining Company in 2011 by the following three plaintiffs: the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council (www.wrpc.net; WRPC Website Static Image), the Center for Biological Diversity (www.biologicaldiversity.org; CBD Website Static Image) and me.
Perhaps the most important piece of evidence submitted by the plaintiffs in the case was the fact that Stream C had been classified as “impaired” by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2011 due to copper and zinc toxicity linked to the Flambeau Mine operation. The stream was subsequently added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) official list of “impaired waters” (see page 66 of the EPA document). Clearly, the stream was/is polluted, and it is because of the Flambeau Mine.
In July 2012, after a five-day trial, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin agreed with the plaintiffs and found Rio Tinto to be in violation of the Clean Water Act on at least eleven counts during the time period covered by the applicable 5-year statute of limitations. The ruling, however, was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in August 2013 on a technicality.
The Court of Appeals did NOT clear Rio Tinto of violating environmental standards. This, of course, would have been difficult to justify, given the fact that the stream at the heart of the lawsuit had been added to the EPA’s list of “impaired waters”in 2011 due to copper and zinc toxicity linked to the Flambeau Mine operation. Rather, the ruling of the appellate court was based on a technicality that allowed errors made by the Wisconsin DNR in its administration of the Clean Water Act to “shield” the company from prosecution. At issue was the fact that the Wisconsin DNR had never required Rio Tinto to obtain a NPDES permit (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System), a requirement of the Clean Water Act that would have put strict limitations on the amount of pollutants discharged to the stream. For more details, please click HERE. Also please visit the page of my website devoted to the lawsuit.