No Back 40 Mine
We have generally steered clear from politics or sounding political, if only because a paddling website feels like neither the time nor place for that. (Besides, there is no shortage of political blogs out there – left, right, or whacko – and chances are they don’t dabble in discussing kayaks, canoes, or water levels.) Politics surrounds us in a noxious bubble, at one and the same time protecting us in self-righteous echo chambers that conform to our biases while preventing us from even attempting to have empathy for others with opposing views. These days especially, politics has become so contentious, so contemptuous, and so combative as to divide us all through particular splinter issues with the effect of letting us forget about the greater majority of matters we have in common or our shared interests in the everyday world. We all have family, neighbors, and friends, the bonds of which are the very life force of the social fabric. And in no way should petty politicians with policy axes to grind damage our personal connections.
But sometimes an issue comes up against which one must speak out, an issue with which one would feel complicit if one didn’t raise a voice. We could bellyache about particular pet peeves where politics and paddling collide – dams, high capacity wells, public access vs. private property, the price hikes in state parks admission and camping costs, the feckless DNR under the Walker administration or our present attorney general not going after polluters, etc. And while any one of those topics is important, we generally have kept to being strictly nonpolitical in what MilesPaddled.com is and tries to do. By and by, in our humble way, we just want to inspire paddlers to explore the gorgeous waterways of Wisconsin (and avoid the awful ones!). We don’t want to come off as preachy or stand atop a soap box all hot and bothered.
That said, we are making a conscious exception to this rule by wanting to talk about – and rail against – a proposed mine on the banks of the Menominee River. So, if this just isn’t your thing, you’re welcome to stop reading now, and wait for our next “traditional” post. What follows here will be some background information about the proposed mine and then some directives to take action against it. To be sure, this is not a partisan issue. It’s not even a trees vs. jobs issue. It’s merely our attempt to raise awareness of the consequential perils of such a mine, be they ecological, cultural, or economical.
But if persuasive argument pieces like this don’t move you, here’s a really fun, spot-on video from our friends at River Alliance of Wisconsin that sums up everything in less than three minutes:
Finally, we want to give great thanks to the several groups and volunteers who’ve been a voice to the voiceless, getting the word out about this proposed mine. In particular, we are totally indebted to River Alliance of Wisconsin, without whom we ourselves wouldn’t have even known about this proposed mine. Just about all of the information below comes directly from or was inspired by them, in some form or another.
OK, here goes.
So, there’s a mining company from Canada called Aquila Resources that has been seeking permits from the state of Michigan to operate an open pit sulfide mine adjacent to the Menominee River, on the U.P. side, near the town of Stephenson. The project is called the Back 40 Mine. And when I say “open pit mine,” allow me to be very specific. If approved, the mine would be 760 feet deep, 2000 feet wide, and 2500 feet long. To put those huge figures in perspective, it would be two-and-a-half football fields deep, almost seven football fields wide, and over eight football fields long. You could stand two Statues of Liberty on top of one another, and the pit still would be considerably deeper. Or picture yourself on the beach at Devil’s Lake State Park and looking up at the highest bluff. That’s only 500′; the mine would be 1.5 times that. Imagine being at the bottom of such a pit and looking up. (And Devil’s Lake itself is roughly 2000′ wide.) This humongous hole in the ground would be a mere 150 feet away from the Menominee River. Again in football terms, that’s the distance from the end zone to the 50 yard line. In other words, Aaron Rodgers could easily throw a Hail Mary pass from the mine into the Menominee. Easily – he’s Aaron Rodgers!
The processed ore will be done on site, rather than being hauled away to a less vulnerable environment. In order to separate the valuable metals from the ore – things like gold, zinc, copper, and silver – toxic chemicals such as cyanide are used. Cyanide!?! The leftover materials from this process are called “tailings,” which further threaten the environment on account of the vast amounts of such hazardous materials stored onsite. Where would all that wastewater go, if not the Menominee River and the groundwater?
I am and will always be an unabashed hugger of trees, but that is not where this is coming from. The mine also poses a severe risk to contaminating drinking water, which you’d think a state like Michigan – after the Flint tap water disaster – would be a bit more conscientious if not cautious about. (The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) is the same agency that failed to prevent the Flint disaster.)
The Menominee River is approximately 120 miles long and forms the border between northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, ultimately draining into Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. The largest watershed in the U.P., and one of the largest within the Lake Michigan drainage basin, the Menominee and its tributaries drain more than 4,000 square miles. The river provides habitat for smallmouth bass, walleye, pike, trout and lake sturgeon. The smallmouth bass fishery is regarded as one of the best in North America, and ichthyologists (fish scientists, for short; sorry, but when else do you get to use that word?) estimate that nearly half of all Lake Michigan sturgeon use the Menominee River exclusively for spawning. Local businesses, be they sport or recreation, depend on the river for their very livelihoods – and that river needs to be healthy.
Don’t just take our word for it. This guy tells it much better:
The Menominee River also is the ancestral home of the Menominee Indian Tribe, the original Wisconsinites and Michiganders, if you will. For them, the river is sacred. The mouth of the river itself, at Green Bay, is their Garden of Eden, their ancestral creation story. In short, the river is the very origin of life for the Menominee people. In the immediate vicinity of the mine itself and downstream from it, there are multiple burial sites and mounds that are inviolable to the Tribe, as well as raised garden beds and village sites of important archeological significance.
Under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the federal government is required to consult with tribes over the identification of historic places. However, by a weird fluke the state of Michigan is one of two states in the nation where the federal government, under the Clean Water Act, delegated authority to the state (the other being New Jersey). As such, the mine’s application process is left entirely to state permits via the MDEQ, and Michigan is neither required to consult with the Menominee Tribe nor comply with NHPA provisions. To date, no consultation with or inclusion of the Tribe has occurred. Insult, meet injury.
Remember the crazy flooding in northwestern Wisconsin in July of 2016, when 10 inches of rain fell overnight in Ashland and Iron Counties and washed out whole highways? Or how about June 2008, when Lake Delton drained into the Wisconsin River after the dam breached, and whole houses were carried away downstream? What if such a storm hit the Menominee River? There’s a 90-year-old dam only a quarter-mile upstream from the mine site. How much faith do you have in science? Such a deluge would be comparable to the recent mudslides in California – except that this would be arsenic, cyanide, sulfuric acid, mercury, and lead pouring downriver. This isn’t doomsday-mongering; this is just a matter of time and eventuality. Or as former mayor of Marinette, Wisconsin, Doug Oitzinger, penned in a blog, “This isn’t a question of ‘if’; it’s a question of ‘when’ – as in, ‘when something bad happens, what can we do’? And the answer is ‘nothing’.” His solution is simple: “There is only one way to fix a slurry of toxic waste from spilling into the Menominee River, and that is to never create the waste in the first place.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls sulfide ore mining the most toxic industry in America. The. Most. Toxic. (Take that Yucca Mountain!) For the record, there has not been a single instance of a metallic sulfide mine that has not polluted the environment. Every single sulfide mine that has ever operated has created sulfuric acid and/or acid mine drainage. Every single one. A safe mine is as much a misnomer as “clean coal.” These things simply do not exist.
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) occurs when minerals containing sulfur are exposed to air and water. The chemical reaction creates acid, a process that can continue for centuries. Much of the high grade ore deposits in the Upper Midwest have been depleted already. What remains are small traces of valuable metals in large rock deposits. In other words, an enormous amount of waste rock containing sulfite is produced to extract these precious metals in places like the Back 40. Once this waste rock is exposed to oxygen and water, AMD begins – and is basically impossible to stop afterwards.
Out of the 250,000+ rivers in the U.S., the Menominee was named the 10th most endangered river due to the threats from the proposed Back 40 Mine. If approved, the mine would critically threaten the cultural and natural resources found along the river that frames two states. The threat of sulfuric acid leaching harmful heavy metals – like copper, cadmium, arsenic, lead, mercury – is inevitable, and this in turn will create acid mine drainage seeping into the Menominee River itself, the groundwater, and eventually Lake Michigan. In the words of Tim Landwehr of Tight Lines Fly Fishing Co. up in DePere, Wisconsin, “We’re left with a poisoned river and a giant hole.”
Let’s not let that happen.
Via the Department of Natural Resources
OK, so that’s the backstory. You may be wondering, “Guys, sure, that’s great and all – well, not great, I mean, the mine sounds awful – but I live in Wisconsin; what can I do about what goes on in Michigan?” Great question, friend – and thanks for asking! Below you’ll find all sorts of links and tidbits to get involved and take action. But we’d like to take a moment now to shed light on a similar subject closer to home.
There’s a lot of mythology surrounding the former Flambeau Mine in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Today, industry shills and shameless politicians alike point to it as a model of safe mining and a bellwether for future sites. But it’s worth remembering that the Flambeau mine polluted the groundwater with drastically high levels of manganese, zinc, copper, and sulfates, and led to walleye livers needing to be tested due to the high levels of minerals in the Flambeau River downstream from the mine.
Comparing the proposed Back 40 Mine to the Flambeau Mine is a bit like comparing a Hummer to a Mini Cooper since they’re both cars used for commuting. Whereas the Flambeau Mine was in operation for four years, the Back Forty is slated to run for seven years. The Back 40 pit and overall project area would be more than three times the sizes as Flambeau. The Flambeau produced just shy of 2 million tons of ore, which led to 8.6 million tons of waste rock, the Back 40 is projected to produce 12.5 million tons of ore and a staggering 54 million tons of waste rock. But perhaps the most telling discrepancy between the two is told in tailings. Flambeau created zero tailings, because no on-site processing was done there, whereas the Back 40 Mine would process onsite, estimated to be about 12 million tons of hazardous materials. That’s a lot of Mr. Yuk stickers.
One thing both mines probably will have in common is a lack of jobs created for local folks and the overall impact on the regional economy. During the four-year operation of the Flambeau Mine, Rusk County was ranked either 71st or 70th of Wisconsin’s 72 counties in per capita income. It ranked as badly in its unemployment rate.
For all the talk about job creation and associated revenue/economic boosts – all of which are short-term booms – there’s never any mention of the long-term economic losses related to large-scale mining. For one, property value could be reduced by as much as 40%, per local assessors, which in turn would severely impact the county tax base. Then there’s the loss of tourism, a huge pillar of economic support for northeastern Wisconsin. Many local businesses could be crippled in the wake of pollution – not just the obvious ones like fishing and boating, but restaurants, hotels, and many other small independent businesses associated with tourism and recreation. (It’s not for nothing that Cabela’s National Walleye Tour Championship was held on the Menominee River just last year.)
Finally, there’s the matter of using public taxpayer funds to clean up the inevitable pollution caused by a private entity who’s long left the area behind for others to deal with. Indeed, copper sulfide mines alone are the largest source of taxpayer liability under the EPA’s superfund cleanup program. And it’s pretty much standard operating procedure for companies that are created for specific mining projects to conveniently go out of business once the mine closes. Good luck taking them to court. Meanwhile, the pollution is still there. From Colorado to British Columbia, mines pollute and taxpayers are left holding the bag.
In short, the advocates for the mine – really, any mine anywhere – are blindsighted by an idolatry for immediate gain and short-term profit. They have no respect for the past and callously disregard the future. They simply worship a present with zero accountability, let alone stewardship. It may look good on paper or sound nice in campaign speeches, but it’s utterly unsustainable – and immoral. To be sure, the mine would make a select few rich, but it would leave the surrounding area poor. Why Michigan is so eager for a bunch of Canadians to make a one-time windfall while potentially devastating a cultural history that dates back millennia is both inconceivable and unconscionable. Why Wisconsin would allow this without so much as a whispered misgiving – since environmental depredation doesn’t exactly recognize state lines – is a telling curiosity.
Enter Tom Tiffany. It’s no coincidence that Wisconsin State Senator Tom Tiffany, R-Hazlehurst (whose ginormous district lies along the Menominee River), authored a bill to lift the state’s moratorium on mining last year or that it was signed into law by Governor Walker, exactly 20 years after it was first passed (and voted by Walker when he was in the State Assembly). Known as the “Prove It First” law, the moratorium required anyone seeking to mine sulfide ores like copper, gold or zinc to prove to the state Department of Natural Resources 1) that a comparable mine has operated in America or Canada for 10 years without causing pollution and 2) that after 10 years of being closed such a mine still did not cause pollution. For the record, no such mine exists. Seriously, none, anywhere. Because all mines cause pollution, period.
So, stymied by science and all its frustrating factual reality, Tiffany and Walker today simply allude to magical changes in technology as laxatives for environmental concern. I mean, look how different cell phones are today than 20 years ago. Surely, sulfide mining is similar. Right. So, since no mine could ever pass the Prove It First test, it’s easier just to scrap the moratorium law altogether. Problem solved.
It’s worth noting that this Canadian mining company, Aquila, owns two sulfide deposits in Wisconsin, in Marathon and Taylor Counties. The Back 40 Mine in the U.P. would be just the beginning. What’s good for the Michigander is bad for the Badger State.
OK, OK. Enough with all the words, Bauer! Let’s get on with it already.
Cool, so here’s where things currently stand. Three of the four required permits Aquila applied for to the MDEQ have been approved. The fourth permit application, concerning wetlands, has been determined to be “administratively complete.” For those who really want to geek out, here’s the wetland permit documents on the DEQ website. Funding for the mine, however, remains up in the air. Without proper funding, there ain’t gonna be a mine. Feel like telling the mine’s investors that this is a really bad idea? Sure you do! Here’s a contact list, courtesy of No Back 40 Mine. Wondering what to write or just looking for a basic template you can sign on to or personalize? Here you go.
Or maybe you’d like to attend the public hearing on the wetland permit application. Wisconsinites won’t be barred at the door! Here’s the info for that:
When: January 23, 2018 at 6:00 P.M
Where: Stephenson High School gym, W526 Division Street, Stephenson, Michigan 49887
Incidentally, Indian Country TV will be live-streaming the wetland permit hearing on January 23rd. Sign up for a notification here.
So, say you don’t live anywhere near Stephenson, but you’d still like to voice your opinion. You’re in luck! Here’s how to submit written comments on the wetlands permit. Or if you want to go old school and help keep the USPS in business by mailing a letter, here’s the address:
DEQ Upper Peninsula District Office WRD
Attn: Back Forty Mine
1507 W. Washington Street
Marquette, MI 49855
Again, if you’re unsure of what you’d like to say, feel free to use the provided template above for investors and just change the wording to cohere with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and denying Aquila’s application to mine. Or, if you’d like actual talking points from someone who really knows what she’s talking about, reach out to Allison Werner at River Alliance (who provided all of this helpful info in the first place). And yes, Wisconsinites are welcome to pen their two cents. Either way, the deadline for submitting written comments is February 2, 2018.
OK, leaving all that aside, click here if you’d like to sign up for more action alerts from the River Alliance concerning the mine.
If you’d like to help fund the Menominee Tribe’s legal challenge to the mine and have the means to do so, I’m sure they’d welcome a contribution, whatever the amount. Click here to do so.
Another way to get involved is through the good folks at Join the River Coalition, Mining Action Group (formerly known as Save the Wild U.P.), No Back 40 Mine, and of course our very own River Alliance of Wisconsin.
In all seriousness, thank you for taking the time to read all this and consider getting involved! We can win this – truly. But it will take work. Nothing worth saving comes without work, however.