Rusk County (WQOW) - Wisconsin's history in mining is very deep, but the recent history in metallic mining is not.
When WQOW News 18 started learning more about the proposal for a large iron mine in northern Wisconsin, we wondered if anyone could provide insight about the impact a mine has because they've seen it.
We didn't have to look far. Rusk County was home to Wisconsin's last metallic mine. Comparing that mine to the Gogebic Taconite proposal for Iron and Ashland counties is not apples to apples. There are obvious differences. For example, the size and scope of the G-Tac mine is far greater, but some of the same questions we're hearing in northern Wisconsin were raised in Rusk County many years ago... so we took a step back in time.
(This is the second story in the WQOW News 18 series, "Mine of Information.")
Ladysmith is a small northern Wisconsin city at the crossroads of two state highways. About 25 years ago, it was at a crossroads of a different sort due to a proposal to build a mine just outside the city limits. WQOW News 18 spoke to some people who say they can't imagine what the economy here would be like today, if not for the mine, but others, like former Ladysmith Mayor Marty Reynolds, say that economic boost came with a price. "(It was) probably one of the worst things that the mine ever did to Rusk County. It split people up that had been friends forever, it made enemies of people that shouldn't have been," said Reynolds.
The Flambeau Mine pitted those concerned about protecting the environment against those who wanted the jobs and economic benefits it could bring to the area's struggling economy. It all began with the discovery of one of the richest copper sulfide deposits in the world, formed 1.8 billion years ago by a volcanic flow from the ocean floor.
Although that deposit was discovered in 1968, it was nearly 20 years later that plans to mine it started to move forward. That prompted protests, negotiations, and a hearing that went on for three weeks before mining was finally approved.
The mine ran for four years. It was the last time metallic mining has taken place in Wisconsin. After the mine closed in 1997, the 225-foot deep pit was refilled and reclaimed, turned into a recreation area with a variety of trails. Looking at the land today, with its trees, prairie grasses, and wetlands, it's hard to picture that less than 20 years ago, it was an open pit mine.
It wasn't that big, only 33 acres. There are gravel pits in Wisconsin that are bigger, but the mine that ended up yielding tons of copper ore, brought with it tons of questions... about the economic and environmental impacts. The mine brought jobs; 190 workers involved in clearing the land to prepare it for mining. After that, the average employment was 55 people, for six years. "It would have been nice if they had been long-term jobs, but it was a short-term mine and the jobs were short term," said Reynolds.
Reynolds was not only Ladysmith's mayor, he was also a state lawmaker during the time the mine was proposed, constructed, and in operation. He says he wasn't overly thrilled with the mine proposal, but he says the jobs it brought were good for the area economy while they lasted. "If I were to look down Main Street and say this business is here and this business is here because of the mine, I can't point to any businesses on Main Street, or even off of Main Street, that are mine-generated businesses that it created when it was here or businesses that have kept going because it was here. I don't see that," said Reynolds.
But Reynolds was part of a negotiating team for the area municipalities that worked to get tax money from the mining company, millions of dollars that were put to use for the long-term benefit of the region. "We got dollars back from the mining operation that enabled us to build facilities like Allen-Bradley, build facilities for Weather Shield... and these are still operational, there are still some good jobs," said Reynolds.
John Terrill, president of the Rusk County Historical Society, says Ladysmith and Rusk County did benefit from the mine during its operation. "We also have the library, the visitors center, the youth and community center, as things that were left thanks to the mining operation," said Terrill.
Environmental activist Will Fantle of Eau Claire questions how much the area really benefited. "They took a half-billion dollars out of the ground in a few years out of an open pit mine, and at the time, Rusk County was the 3rd poorest county in the state. They're still the 3rd poorest county in the state," said Fantle. Even today, the environmental impact still remains unknown. Sixteen years ago, WQOW News 18 talked to Fantle about his concerns. At the time, he expressed fear that acid from the mining operation would leach into the Flambeau River 20 years later.
Today, Fantle is unsure if his words were prophetic, but he maintains pollution is occurring at the site. "Mining is a dirty activity. There's no getting around it and to talk about this mine site as being a model and the cleanest one ever... we're still seeing leaking going out of it," Fantle said.
Terrill, from the historical society, says when the Flambeau Mine started operation, the environmental laws for the mine were considered some of the strictest in the country, but Fantle says, "There used to be a law, a standard in the state of Wisconsin, that there would be zero contamination of groundwater. That was changed in the 1980's to allow for acceptable, not safe, acceptable levels of pollution into our groundwater."
Cliff Taylor and his wife own the Colonial Nursery, right across the road from the Flambeau Mine. They were in business when it opened, and remain in business today. "I'm kind of a steward of the lands. As you can see, I work with plants and everything else, so the environment is really important to me... and the Flambeau Mine, as far as I'm concerned, has done a phenomenal job," said Taylor.
Taylor says he has yet to see negative impacts on the environment. "Being a nursery, we grow plants and what have you and we monitor our water quality. From the time the mine came until today, my water quality has not changed. My pH levels, my iron, everything in the water is still basically what it was when the mine started digging," said Taylor.
To this day, the mine is the tied up in court battles. Environmentalists filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging a nearby creek that feeds the Flambeau River was contaminated with copper and zinc from the mining process. "You can go up there and look at it and it looks fine. Here's where the open pit was, there's the nice grassy surface there in place. Underneath, it's leaking and last year, a federal court found that the company was in multiple violations of the Clean Water Act for contaminants leaching out of what's left there, buried underground," Fantle said.
But in that case, a federal judge ruled last summer that the amount of pollution was minimal, and fined the company just $275. The judge called the company's efforts to protect the environment "exemplary." The judge also said the company deserved commendation, not penalties, for its efforts.
Environmental groups also claim the groundwater is contaminated with manganese, iron and copper, but they concede the levels are within DNR rules. So again, depending on who you talk to, the economic and environmental impacts are unclear.
Terrill said, "There hasn't been a significant problem there that I understand at the present. But 50 years from now, 100 years from now, maybe we'll have the answer to that question."
As for the community that was divided when the battle over the mine was underway, some say most people are long over it. But Reynolds says things are not back to normal despite the fact it's been 25 years since the heated debate. "No, no. There were some things said, some things thought and done that make it pretty hard to get back to what you like to think of as normal. It was fierce. It was very, very strong opposition between people, and I think a lot of that is still in place," said Reynolds.
The DNR says it gained valuable experience in its oversight of the Flambeau Mine and will continue to learn as the monitoring of the reclaimed site continues for decades.
The DNR has a critical role in the G-Tac proposal moving forward. On Thursday night, WQOW News 18 will examine where that proposal goes from here. You will hear from the DNR and also an interview with a representative from Gogebic Taconite. That's Thursday night at 10 p.m. in "Mine of Information" on WQOW News 18.