Contaminated Drinking Water

Despite industry claims that the Flambeau Mine has succeeded in protecting the environment from adverse impact, the facts prove otherwise.

For pertinent information regarding groundwater (drinking water) contamination at the Flambeau Mine site, I refer you to the following documents:

Unfortunately, we were not able to introduce evidence about the toxic drinking water at the Flambeau Mine site in our recent Clean Water Act case against Flambeau Mining Company (FMC). Why not? Because the Clean Water Act only deals with surface water pollution, not drinking water.  In addition, Wisconsin’s mining laws contain a loophole that allows unlimited pollution of groundwater within a backfilled mine pit and up to an additional 1,200 feet out from the pit (NR 182.075(1)(b), Wisconsin Administrative Code).

Groundwater within the backfilled pit at the Flambeau Mine site indeed is highly contaminated, as compared to baseline, with heavy metals and sulfate.  Case in point: Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) promised the people of Wisconsin in its 1989 Mine Permit Application that:

  1. Manganese levels in the groundwater within the backfilled pit would top off at about 550 mcg/l (0.550 mg/l), as compared to a pre-mine baseline that ranged from 90 mcg/l to 360 mcg/l, depending on well depth; and
  2. It would take over 4,000 years for the manganese levels to drop from 550 mcg/l to baseline.

But here’s what really happened:  There is a  monitoring well within the backfilled pit (MW-1013B; 600 feet from the Flambeau River) that has registered manganese levels as high as 42,000 mcg/l. In other words, FMC underestimated the manganese levels by a factor of 75. All of this information is documented and discussed in: Report on Groundwater and Surface Water Contamination at the Flambeau Mine, David M. Chambers, Ph.D. and Kendra Zamzow, Ph.D., Center for Science in Public Participation, June 5, 2009).

The high levels of manganese in the groundwater within the backfilled pit at the Flambeau Mine site is no small matter, as suggested by various scientific documents. For example, the medical literature reports that consuming water with a manganese level of about 14,000 mcg/l (a third of that found in the cited well) has been associated with causing the kind of nerve damage seen in Parkinson’s disease. What’s more, FMC’s groundwater modeling shows that the contaminated water is flowing into the bed of the Flambeau River.  FMC misled the public about this fact, as discussed in: The Buzzards Have Landed! – Chapter 125, pages 1052-1053.

For a diagram showing the direction of groundwater flow at the Flambeau Mine site and the locations of the various monitoring wells , go to: Report on Groundwater and Surface Water Contamination at the Flambeau Mine, David M. Chambers, Ph.D. and Kendra Zamzow, Ph.D., Center for Science in Public Participation, June 5, 2009, page 18.

As mentioned above, due to loopholes in Wisconsin’s mining regulations, the groundwater pollution measured in the pit monitoring wells at the Flambeau Mine site is technically legal. That makes it hard to sue, even though the drinking water has been polluted for at least 4,000 years according to FMC’s computer modeling.

Besides the pit monitoring wells, however, there are two other types of wells at the Flambeau Mine site that are subject to groundwater standards specified in the Flambeau Mine Permit. First off, there are so-called “Compliance Boundary Wells” that need to meet the standards specified on pages 89-92 of the permit. Unfortunately, however, even though the Flambeau Mine Compliance Boundary is about 3.7 miles in length, FMC has installed only one set of wells (MW-1015 nest) along the entire boundary, and, according to FMC’s groundwater modeling, this nest is not even located in the direct line of groundwater flow from the backfilled pit to the Flambeau River. Still, however, there have been occasional permit violations in the MW-1015 nest, as discussed in: Report on Groundwater and Surface Water Contamination at the Flambeau Mine, David M. Chambers, Ph.D. and Kendra Zamzow, Ph.D., Center for Science in Public Participation, June 5, 2009, pages 14 and 29.

In addition to the nest of “Compliance Boundary Wells,” there are wells at the Flambeau Mine site known as “Intervention Boundary Wells” that are subject to groundwater standards specified on pages 92-93 of the Flambeau Mine Permit and Appendix L of the Flambeau Mine Permit Application. It is interesting to note that at least one of the monitoring wells along the “Intervention Boundary” at the Flambeau Mine site (MW-1000PR ; located about 125 feet from the Flambeau River ) has consistently and significantly exceeded the Flambeau Mine permit standard for manganese since 1998, as discussed in: Report on Groundwater and Surface Water Contamination at the Flambeau Mine, David M. Chambers, Ph.D. and Kendra Zamzow, Ph.D., Center for Science in Public Participation, June 5, 2009, pages 12-14, 28) and The Buzzards Have Landed! – Chapter 125, pages 1052-1056. Yet, as far as I know, the Wisconsin DNR has done nothing about it.

A second “Intervention Boundary Well,” MW1000R (dry until water levels rebounded in 2010) has shown even higher levels of manganese than those found in MW-1000PR, with levels exceeding the Flambeau Mine Permit enforcement standard of 550 mcg/l by up to 25 times. But, again, it appears that the Wisconsin DNR has done nothing about it (even though, by FMC’s own modeling, this contaminated water is passing through fractured bedrock directly into the bed of the Flambeau River).

For a series of tables that list the groundwater enforcement standards applicable to the various monitoring wells at the Flambeau Mine site, click on the below link:

For information regarding the Wisconsin DNR’s “take” on the high levels of manganese in certain wells at the Flambeau Mine site, click HERE.

To read how Rio Tinto, Kennecott’s Jon Cherry, Foth’s Stephen Donohue, Mining Minnesota’s Frank Ongaro and others have mislead the public and/or state lawmakers about the groundwater situation at the Flambeau Mine site, please click HERE.

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