Court Rules Flambeau 'Model Mine' Violated Clean Water Act


A federal court ruled in July that Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) violated the Clean Water Act on numerous occasions by allowing pollution from its Flambeau Mine site, near Ladysmith, Wis., to enter the Flambeau River and a nearby tributary known as Stream C.

The lawsuit was filed last year by the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council (WRPC), the Center for Biological Diversity, and Laura Gauger. The complaint charged that Flambeau Mining Company (a subsidiary of Kennecott Minerals Company / Rio Tinto) was violating the Clean Water Act by discharging stormwater runoff containing pollutants, including toxic metals, from a detention basin known as a biofilter.  

The Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, Wisc. has a long history of controversy due, in part, to the proximity of the mine to the Flambeau River. A federal court ruled that the mine, which ceased operations in 1997 and has since been reclaimed, violated the federal Clean Water Act on numerous occasions over the past 6 years.

The Flambeau is a popular river for fishing and canoeing and provides habitat for a wide variety of aquatic and wildlife species, including bald eagles and osprey. The Flambeau Mine operated near the river from 1993 to 1997. Since the close of mining operations, Flambeau Mining Company has faced persistent groundwater and surface water quality problems at the site, most notably at a 32-acre industrial park that remains operational.

The pollution caused by the relatively small Flambeau Mine takes on added significance in light of new proposals for copper, nickel, zinc and iron mines in the Great Lakes region. Projects under consideration include NorthMet (Babbitt, MN), Penokee Hills (Mellen, WI), Eagle (Big Bay, MI),  Back Forty (Stephenson, MI), Copperwood (Ironwood, MI) and Lynne (Tripoli, WI), among others. The ore deposits and/or host rock at these sites, as was the case for the Flambeau Mine, contain sulfide minerals known to produce toxic acid mine drainage. The proposed mines, however, would be significantly larger than the Flambeau Mine.

Gauger is urging state regulators in the Great Lakes region to "learn from Flambeau" and halt the proposed mega-mines in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. Her concern is that high levels of toxic pollutants in the surface water and groundwater at the Flambeau Mine site could not be prevented despite state-of-the-art technology and the relatively small size of the mine.

Gauger said, "If the Flambeau Mine were a pea, these other proposals would be watermelons. If they couldn’t get it right at Flambeau, how are they going to get it right at Penokee, NorthMet or any of the other sulfide mines proposed for the region?"

This case is not the first time that citizens or tribal members have sought legal action against FMC for water pollution problems at the Flambeau Mine site. In 2004, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) pressed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to take enforcement action against FMC for discharging pollutants into Stream C. The Commission represents 11 Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan who reserved hunting, fishing and gathering rights in treaties with the U.S. government in the mid 1800’s. The Flambeau Mine site falls within the affected area, also known as "tribal ceded territory."

A second attempt to hold FMC accountable for water pollution problems at the Flambeau Mine site was launched in 2009, when WRPC and Gauger filed a notice of intent to sue the company and the Wisconsin DNR in State of Wisconsin Circuit Court. Besides the high levels of copper in Stream C, another issue raised in the notice letter was the consistent and statistically significant exceedances of groundwater standards in a well between the backfilled pit and the Flambeau River. In particular, manganese levels in this well, located just 125 feet from the river bank, have registered as high as 5600 parts per billion (ppb), over ten times the mine permit standard of 550 ppb.

Another well at the Flambeau Mine site, this one within the backfilled pit, has registered manganese levels in excess of 40,000 ppb. As reported in the medical literature, drinking water with that much manganese in it has been associated with causing the kind of nerve damage seen in Parkinson’s disease. Per the terms of Wisconsin’s mining laws, however, this particular well at the Flambeau Mine site is exempt from having to meet state groundwater standards, as are all the wells located within the backfilled pit and for up to 1200 feet from the buried waste rock (see NR 182.075(1)(b), Wisconsin Admin-istrative Code). This encompasses an area of nearly a square mile at and near the mine site where the groundwater can be polluted by FMC to an unlimited degree.

The plaintiffs decided not to push forward with the 2009 case in State of Wisconsin Circuit Court when, according to Gauger, "it became clear that Wisconsin’s mining laws contained too many loopholes and the Wisconsin Department of Justice was siding with the mining interests."