“A Mine is a Hole in the Ground Owned by Liars.” Was Mark Twain right?

A mine is a hole in the ground owned by liars.” This statement, attributed to Mark Twain, comes to mind when I look at a glossy brochure about Wisconsin’s Flambeau Mine circulated in late 2013 by Mining Minnesota, a lobbyist group headed by Frank Ongaro here in Duluth. The brochure, accompanied by a letter from Ongaro to Minnesota’s governor and lawmakers imploring them to “say yes to copper-nickel mineral development,” was meant to boost support for new mining projects in Minnesota’s arrowhead region, including lands in the Superior National Forest, proposed by PolyMet and Twin Metals Minnesota.

I am appalled by statements made by Mr. Ongaro about the Flambeau Mine and hereby challenge him to a public debate over his claim that the Flambeau Mine is an “excellent example” of how copper-nickel mining can be done “without polluting local waters.”   I am no mining engineer, but I do know a thing or two about the Flambeau Mine. If you are interested to see my credentials, take a look at the side bar that summarizes various activities and legal proceedings regarding the Flambeau Mine to which I have been a party.

My intention here is not to preach about the vices of the Flambeau Mine, although I was a plaintiff in a recent Clean Water Act case in federal court against the owner, Flambeau Mining Company (FMC; a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto of London, UK). No, I would like you to make up your own minds, based on a side-by-side comparison between what Mining Minnesota has said about the Flambeau Mine and what the environmental monitoring reports submitted by Flambeau Mining Company to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and obtained by FOIA show.  Take a look:

What Mining Minnesota has told the public, Governor Mark Dayton and Minnesota lawmakers about the Flambeau Mine 1,2

What the facts show

“The reclaimed site is home to … clean and healthy groundwater of the same quality as before mining took place.”

Seven of the eight wells within the backfilled mine pit at the Flambeau Mine site are highly contaminated with manganese, as flagged on the company’s own environmental monitoring reports submitted to the Wisconsin DNR.3  Here are the facts:

Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) promised the people of Wisconsin in its 1989 Mine Permit Application that:

• At the end of mining, manganese levels in the groundwater within the backfilled mine pit would top off at about 550 ppb (as compared to a baseline of about 230 ppb)4; and

• It would take over 4,000 years for the manganese levels to drop from 550 ppb to baseline.4

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 ppb over the past 15 years (average quarterly reading = 31,000 ppb).3, 5 This is no small matter, as the medical literature reports that consuming water with a manganese level of about 14,000 ppb (less than half that found in MW-1013B), is associated with causing the kind of nerve damage seen in Parkinson’s Disease. (See graph on page 18)

The remaining six wells in the backfilled Flambeau Mine pit are polluted as well, with manganese levels ranging from 1,700 to 26,000 ppb in June 2014.3
 If Mr. Ongaro and Mining Minnesota believe this water is “clean and healthy” and “of the same quality as before mining took place,” I would invite them to drink it.

“In fact, not a single permit condition was violated ...”

The Flambeau Mine Permit specifies a water quality enforcement standard of 550 ppb for manganese in wells located between the backfilled pit and Flambeau River (these are known as “intervention boundary wells”).4, 6 Ever since the mine pit was backfilled in 1998, manganese levels in a critical intervention boundary well located just 125 feet from the Flambeau River have consistently been in violation of the permit standard, averaging 2,900 ppb (5 times the permit standard). Manganese levels in a second intervention boundary well located 170 feet from the Flambeau River (MW-1000R) are even worse, averaging 7,700 ppb over the past 4 years (14 times the permit standard), with some levels as high as 14,000 - 15,000 ppb (25 times the permit standard).5

If Mr. Ongaro and Mining Minnesota believe these hard and fast numbers equate with “not a single permit condition [being] violated” at the Flambeau Mine site, they must be using some kind of new math.

“In fact, … the mine has not impaired local waters.”

Stream C is a tributary of the Flambeau River that runs across a section of the Flambeau Mine site on its way to the river. As documented in a 2012 report issued by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Stream C is polluted with copper and zinc from the mining operation.7

Copper levels exceeding the legal limit set to protect fish have been reported in Stream C on a consistent basis over the past 12 years, with some levels more than 10 times the legal limit.8, 9 This prompted the Wisconsin DNR to recommend to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in late 2011 that Stream C be listed as “impaired” for copper and zinc toxicity linked to the Flambeau Mine operation.10 The agency agreed, so Stream C is now on the EPA’s official list of “impaired waters.”

Mr. Ongaro and Mining Minnesota’s claim that the Flambeau Mine “has not impaired local waters” ignores an official Wisconsin DNR determination based on hard science.  

1. Fact Sheet – Flambeau Mine, Mining Minnesota, September 2013.

2. Mine Reader, Twin Metals Minnesota, December 2013.

3. Flambeau Mining Company, Third Quarter 2014 environmental monitoring groundwater data, September 29, 2014.

4. Flambeau Mine Permit Application, Appendix L, Table 2-5, 1989.

5. Flambeau Mining Company 2013 Annual Report, Appendix B Historic Groundwater Quality & Elevation/Surface Water Quality Trends, 2013; and  FMC quarterly environmental monitoring reports, 2014.

6. Flambeau Mine Permit, State of Wisconsin, pp. 89-93, January 1991.

7. Surface Water Quality Assessment of the Flambeau Mine Site, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, April 2012.

8. Expert report of Dr. David Chambers on behalf of plaintiffs Laura Gauger, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and Center for Biological Diversity, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, Case No. 11-cv-45, October 10, 2011.

9. Flambeau Mining Company annual reports and technical reports filed pursuant to Stipulation Monitoring Plan and Copper Park Business and Recreation Area Maintenance and Monitoring Plan, 2002-2014.

10. Wisconsin DNR recommendation that Stream C at the Flambeau Mine site be listed as “impaired,” U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, Case No. 11-cv-45, Document 103, December 19, 2011.

Here’s another tidbit:  If the Flambeau Mine were a pea, the new mines proposed for Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region would be watermelons. For example, the 3 open pits that comprise the PolyMet proposal have a combined size (length x width x maximum depth) roughly 50 times bigger than the Flambeau Mine open pit.  Yet, even at the very small and state-of-the-art Flambeau Mine, water pollution has proven to be a serious and ongoing problem.

So why do Ongaro and Mining Minnesota tout the Flambeau Mine as a “great example” of how copper-nickel mining can be done “without polluting local waters”? Apparently, it’s the best they have to offer in efforts to appease Minnesotans who are concerned about protecting Minnesota’s lakes, streams and drinking water from mining impacts. This is NOT iron mining. This is metallic sulfide mining, a new breed of cat for Minnesota, and the type of mining that has never been done ANYWHERE in the world WITHOUT polluting local waters. Ongaro tried to tell us that it’s been done in Wisconsin, but the facts speak otherwise.

Rio Tinto has gone to great lengths to try to make the Flambeau Mine “look good” on the surface.  Take a look at the aerial photo included in the Mining Minnesota brochure, and you will see what I mean. But the prairie grass and hiking trails that crisscross the site belie what is happening to the water beneath the surface and in the small tributary of the Flambeau River that is now officially classified by the EPA as “impaired.”

Roscoe Churchill, a Rusk County Board Supervisor who followed developments closely at the Flambeau Mine for over 30 years, described the manicured Flambeau Mine site as “Just Grass Over a Grave.”

And we all know what Mark Twain said.

It’s time for Minnesotans to make up their own minds.

For more information go to: http://FlambeauMineExposed.wordpress.com/

A Brief History of Activity and Legal Actions Spurred by Pollution at the Flambeau Mine Site

Laura Gauger is a pharmacist by trade who has been following developments at the Flambeau Mine site since 1997. She has done numerous open records requests of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to obtain official documents and environmental monitoring reports for the mine.

Gauger worked with the late Roscoe Churchill of Ladysmith, Wisconsin to co-author a 1200-page book about the Flambeau Mine that was published in 2007. The book includes a detailed analysis of: (1) existing mining regulations impacting the project; and (2) how groundwater and surface water quality at the mine site fared under those regulations. The book, entitled The Buzzards Have Landed! – The Real Story of the Flambeau Mine, is available at the Duluth Public Library and the campus libraries at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of Wisconsin-Superior.  

Over the years Gauger has been an official party to three legal actions involving pollution at the Flambeau Mine site:

1.   2007 contested case hearing over a request from Flambeau Mining Company to obtain a Certificate of Completion (COC) for successful reclamation of the mine site:   As a result of a negotiated agreement between the opposing parties, a 32-acre portion of the site known as the “Industrial Outlot” was denied COC certification due to ongoing problems with surface water pollution in a small tributary of the Flambeau River (known as Stream C) into which FMC, by design, had been discharging contaminated runoff from the mine site since 1998. Despite numerous attempts to clean up the problem, certification standards to this day have not been met, and the stream remains polluted.

2.  2011-2014 Clean Water Act case against Flambeau Mining Company:   A Clean Water Act lawsuit was filed by Gauger and others against FMC/Rio Tinto in early 2011 over the pollution of Stream C at the Flambeau Mine site. The trial was held in May 2012, at which time the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin found FMC to be in violation of the Clean Water Act on numerous counts. The ruling, however, was overturned on a technicality by the U.S. Court of Appeals in August 2013. The appellate court did NOT dispute the fact that Stream C is polluted or that the source of the pollution was/is the Flambeau Mine. Rather, the ruling was based on a technicality that allowed errors made by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (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 FMC/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.

The appellate court ruling does not mean that the water at the Flambeau Mine site is clean. Rather, it means that Rio Tinto found a legal angle that allowed them to avoid being held responsible for the pollution.

Because the appellate court ruling, in effect, made FMC/Rio Tinto the “prevailing party” in the lawsuit, the company’s next move was to “go after” the plaintiffs, including Gauger as an individual, to recoup court costs. The company originally sought $157,000 from the plaintiffs, but the court disallowed over half the amount because, as stated by the court in its ruling, the case “was not obviously meritless.” Still, the court ordered the plaintiffs to reimburse Rio Tinto $61,500 for items such as transcript fees and copying costs. As one of three plaintiffs, Gauger’s share was $20,500.

She launched a fundraising campaign and was able to pay  her portion of the debt quickly due to a tremendous outpouring of public support from enraged citizens in 12 different state and Canada. As Gauger stated, “This strong show of support for a little guy like me sends a very strong message to Rio Tinto or any other corporate polluter who tries to silence us. We little guys stick together, and we have each other’s backs. Those BIG guys who want to build new mines in Minnesota may as well pack up and go home because we, the little guys, have People Power and WILL ultimately prevail in this battle to protect the water and the “little ones” whose voices need to be heard and respected.”

3. 2011 petition to Wisconsin DNR and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to add Stream C at the Flambeau Mine site to the nation’s official list of “impaired waters”:   The EPA and Wisconsin DNR, after reviewing water quality data for Stream C, agreed with the petitioners and designated Stream C as “impaired” for copper and zinc toxicity linked to the Flambeau Mine operation, effective April 2012.  One of the judges in the afore-mentioned Clean Water Act case had referred to the pollution of Stream C as “de minimis” despite the routine exceedances of water quality standards documented by the Wisconsin DNR in a report submitted at trial. It was gratifying to Gauger to see the EPA and Wisconsin DNR put objective science ahead of what appeared to be politics, or perhaps ignorance, in the courtroom. She stated, “This proves our Clean Water Act case had merit, and it also suggests to me that the mining lobbyists in Minnesota who to this day tout the Flambeau Mine as an environmental success story are either misinformed or intentionally misleading the public in an effort to further their own selfish interests.”