Flambeau River

The Flambeau River is at particular risk for pollution caused by the partially reclaimed Flambeau Mine because: (1) the river is just 140 feet from the backfilled mine pit; (2) the mine’s 1200-foot pollution buffer zone (in which no groundwater standards apply or are enforced due to provisions contained in NR 182.075, Wisconsin Administrative Codeincludes the river; (3) the direction of groundwater flow at the mine site is toward the Flambeau River (see Figure 3-7 in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Flambeau Mine, 1990); and (4) according to computer modeling submitted by Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), contaminated groundwater from within the backfilled mine pit is indeed entering the river through fractured bedrock.

Here’s a schematic of the Flambeau Mine site and nearby Flambeau River (as reproduced from a technical report issued by Center for Science in Public Participation, June 2009):

Flambeau Compliance Boundary Schematic

The 1200-foot pollution buffer zone for the Flambeau Mine is defined and encircled by what is known as the “compliance boundary.” When the Flambeau Mine proposal was being debated in 1989, the Wisconsin Public Intervenor Office (a division of the State of Wisconsin Department of Justice) approached the Wisconsin DNR to argue that the mine’s compliance boundary west of the mine pit should be set at the Flambeau River (instead of extending across the river to the other side).  The Public Intervenor’s request, which would have afforded greater protection to the river from potential mine impacts, was within the Wisconsin DNR’s delegated authority to grant. Still, department officials did not grant the request and instead stayed with their original recommendation that the compliance boundary for the Flambeau Mine be established as shown in the above diagram.

So how is the Flambeau River faring now that the Flambeau Mine has come and gone? A mantra of Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) over the years has been: “Monitoring and evaluations conducted … continue to document that the Flambeau River remains fully protected and Flambeau remains in full compliance with its permit standards” (FMC 2011 Annual Report). But there is another side to the story.

First off, FMC’s claim that the company remains “in full compliance with permit standards” is blatantly false, as documented in the “Contaminated Drinking Water” section of my website (see information about Monitoring Well 1000-PR and Monitoring Well 1000-R).

Second, in terms of FMC’s assertion that the Flambeau River “remains fully protected,” the company has not submitted any defensible data in support of the claim.  In fact, FMC’s own data suggests that the Flambeau Mine may already be having an impact on the Flambeau River. This is discussed in great detail by Dr. Ken Parejko in a series of expert reports drafted for the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council in 2009. To summarize Dr. Parejko’s findings:

    • There were and continue to be serious design flaws in FMC’s Flambeau River monitoring program;
    • Despite the poor study design, FMCs data still suggests that the Flambeau Mine may be having an impact on the Flambeau River. As Dr. Parejko states: Sediment copper concentrations appear to be higher downstream than upstream … In addition [crayfish and walleye] copper concentrations were found to be significantly higher downstream than upstream, suggesting a possible mine effect” (FLAMBEAU RIVER SEDIMENTS – Analysis, Comments and Recommendations, Dr. Ken Parejko, April 10, 2009, pp. 18-19).
    • Statistical analyses of Kennecott’s sediment, macroinvertebrate, crayfish and walleye data raise significant doubts about the company’s claim of “no impact” of the Flambeau Mine on the Flambeau River.
    • As a result of survey work [done by the Wisconsin DNR in 1991] … a number of Wisconsin endangered or threatened species were confirmed to exist in the vicinity of the mine site, including the following: the purple wartyback mussel, the bullhead mussel, and three species of dragonflies. … It appears that beyond the DNR survey of the Flambeau River, FMC was not asked to, nor did they, undertake additional monitoring to ascertain the location and/or populations trends of these species near the mine. … the lack of follow-up studies on the fate of endangered species identified in and around the Flambeau River prior to mining is unacceptable.

Below you will find links taking you to: (1) the reports drafted by Dr. Parejko with regard to Flambeau River sediments, macroinvertebrate/endangered species, crayfish and walleye; (2) information related to Flambeau River surface water monitoring conducted by FMC; and (3) additional pages on the Flambeau Mine Exposed website with related information:

SEDIMENTS:

1.  Flambeau River Monitoring at the Flambeau Mine, Rusk County, Wisconsin: 1. FLAMBEAU RIVER SEDIMENTS – Analysis, Comments and Recommendations, Dr. Ken Parejko, April 10, 2009

2. Flambeau Mine Exposed website page:  Flambeau River Sediments

MACROINVERTEBRATE /ENDANGERED SPECIES:

1.  Flambeau River Monitoring at the Flambeau Mine, Rusk County, Wisconsin: 2. MACROINVERTEBRATES – Analysis, Comments and Recommendations, Dr. Ken Parejko, April 10, 2009

2. Flambeau Mine Exposed website page:  Flambeau River Macroinvertebrate/Endangered Species

CRAYFISH:

1.  Flambeau River Monitoring at the Flambeau Mine, Rusk County, Wisconsin: 3. CRAYFISH – Analysis, Comments and Recommendations, Dr. Ken Parejko, April 10, 2009

2. After Dr. Parejko issued his crayfish report, several more rounds of data were reported by FMC. Click on the following link to see the additional data: Crayfish Data Tables Plus Map.

3. Flambeau Mine Exposed website page:  Flambeau River Crayfish

WALLEYE:

1.  Flambeau River Monitoring at the Flambeau Mine, Rusk County, Wisconsin: 4. WALLEYE TISSUE MONITORING – Analysis, Comments and Recommendations, Dr. Ken Parejko, April 10, 2009

2. After Dr. Parejko issued his walleye report, several more rounds of data were reported by FMC. Click on the following link to see the additional data: Walleye Data Tables Plus Maps.

3. Flambeau Mine Exposed website page:  Flambeau River Walleye

RECOMMENDED CHANGES TO MONITORING PROGRAM:

5.  Recommendations for Changes to Groundwater, Surface Water and Biomonitoring Specified in the Stipulation Monitoring Plan at the Flambeau Mine, David M. Chambers, Ph.D., Kendra Zamzow, Ph.D. and Ken Parejko, Ph.D., June 9, 2009

FLAMBEAU RIVER SURFACE WATER 

FMC has been monitoring surface water in the Flambeau River twice a year since 1991. There are two monitoring sites, as shown in a 2006 FMC diagram:

  • SW-1 (Surface Water-1): at the upstream boundary of the Flambeau Mine site (in alignment with Blackberry Lane); and
  • SW-2 (Surface Water-2): prior to 2007, FMC diagrams show the location of SW-2 somewhere between the backfilled mine pit and the downstream (Copper Park Lane) boundary of the Flambeau Mine site; as of 2007, FMC diagrams show the location of SW-2  at the downstream boundary of the Flambeau Mine site (in alignment with Copper Park Lane)

FMC’s surface water monitoring program is somewhat of a farce. While SW-2, the designated “downstream” monitoring site in the Flambeau River, is indeed downstream of the backfilled mine pit, it is about 1500 feet upstream of the mouth of a small tributary of the river (Stream C) that flows across the southeast corner of the mine site and has been discharging contaminated runoff from the mine site into the Flambeau River since at least 1998. This flaw in the monitoring program was pointed out by mine opponents/petitioners at the 2007 contested case hearing over FMC’s application for a Certificate of Completion for mine reclamation. As part of a negotiated agreement between FMC and the petitioners, a work plan was developed whereby another Flambeau River surface water sampling site, SW-3, was added to the monitoring program for a five-year period (2007-2012):

  • SW-3 (Surface Water-3); in the Flambeau River, immediately downstream of the Stream C discharge point, as shown in a 2007 FMC diagram.

Flambeau River Surface Water Monitoring Data:

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) did its own analysis of surface water quality at the Flambeau Mine site in April 2012. Click HERE to see the report, in its entirety.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also posts to its website a portion of the water quality monitoring data that has been submitted to the department by FMC. This includes both groundwater data and limited surface water data for the Flambeau River. Unfortunately, however, not ALL of the FMC monitoring data has been posted to the department’s website.

The Department’s on-line database is known as GEMS (Groundwater and Environmental Monitoring System; http://dnr.wi.gov/wastemgmt/gotw/webpages/UserAgreement.aspx ; Website Static Image).

To access the database, click on the above link, accept the user agreement and click on “Proceed to GOTW.” The following specifications will help you find the correct file:

  • County = Rusk
  • Facility Name = Flambeau Mining Co – Kennecott Mining Site
  • License Number = 3180

When you are in the Flambeau Mine section of the data base (Website Static Image), do the following:

  • Click on the “Point ID” for the well or surface water site you want to see
  • Scroll down, click on “Choose Parameter Code(s)/Subtype(s),” select individual parameters of interest or click on “Check All”
  • Under “Choose Sample Date Range,” select dates that you want (oldest wells at Flambeau site have data going back to October 1987) or click on “Select All Dates”
  • Click on “Download Comprehensive Results Directly to Excel File”
  • When the Excel file has downloaded, you can “sort” any column to make the spreadsheet more usable.

What the future holds for the Flambeau River is unknown. According to the mining company’s own analysis of the situation, polluted groundwater from the backfilled pit will continue to enter the river through fractured bedrock for over 4,000 years.  What’s more, Stream C continues to carry contaminated runoff from the site to the river.  The small tributary was added to the EPA’s official list of “impaired waters,” effective April 2012, due to copper and zinc toxicity linked to the Flambeau Mine operation, and the pollution of the tributary was also the subject of a Clean Water Act case against Flambeau Mining Company litigated between 2010 and 2014. Unfortunately, however, neither the EPA listing of the stream nor the lawsuit compelled FMC to implement (or even propose) a plan to restore the tributary (i.e., it remains polluted).

For additional information regarding surface water monitoring in the Flambeau River, click HERE.