Mining Moratorium Bill passed in 1997
With a bipartisan vote of 29-3, the Wisconsin state Senate passed the Mining Moratorium Bill on March 11, 1997. The legislation, which had failed to pass a year earlier, prevented the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from issuing metallic mining permits unless applicants could provide proof that the mine would not cause environmental pollution.
“The purpose of the mining moratorium legislation was to essentially take the industry at its word,” says Al Gedicks, a sociology professor at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations. “The industry was telling everyone that they could mine safely in the environment and so the mining moratorium legislation said, “prove it.””
The bill, written in direct response to a proposed zinc-copper mine near Crandon, required mining companies to cite an example of a metallic sulfide mine in the United States or Canada that had been in operation for 10 years without polluting ground water or surface water, and a mine that had been closed for 10 years without causing any water pollution.
The proposed Crandon Mine site, promoted by Exxon and Rio Algom, was situated next to the Wolf River, a mile upstream from the wild rice beds of the Mole Chippewa Tribe Reservation and downstream from the Menomonee Tribe and the Forest County Potawatomi Reservation. The Wolf River was crucial to the area’s tourism industry.
The main problem with metallic sulfide mining, according to Gedicks, is that the chemical process in extracting minerals from sulfide ore creates sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water and releases heavy metals through the wastewater. The potential for acid rock drainage threatens the aquatic life and health of the residents.
“It essentially creates biological dead zones around these mines,” says Gedicks.
In an attempt to ban sulfide mining, five Native American tribes, sportfishing organizations, UW student organizations, labor unions, and nearly all of the state’s environmental organizations formed the largest environmental coalition in the state of Wisconsin, says Gedicks.
The group, called the Wolf River Watershed Education Project, spearheaded an educational speaking tour and visited 30 towns along the Wolf River and Wisconsin River in under two weeks, leading to a rally in Rhinelander against the Crandon Mine.
“Wisconsin has this ugly history of racial discrimination against the Chippewa during that period. When the same groups came together in the 1990s to cooperate on a common resource,” says Gedicks, “a lot of people took notice because this was a very unlikely and unprecedented alliance between people that had been enemies in the previous decade.”
“This is a who’s who in the international mining industry and it’s all behind this attempt to derail the mining moratorium legislation,” says Gedicks.
“One of the major victories of this legislation was to set a gold standard for environmental protection and put Wisconsin on the map as being a leader in environmentally-protective common sense legislation.”
Since the enactment of the Mining Moratorium Law, no mining company in Wisconsin has been able to successfully cite an example of a metallic sulfide mine either in operation or closed for 10 years that has met the water quality regulations.
More events from the week of March 11 – 17 in Wisconsin History
March 11, 1952: A Marquette University student is trampled by a cow after it escaped from the Milwaukee Dressed Beef Company. A parade of detectives, motorcycle officers, and squad patrolmen chased the cow for nearly an hour before it stormed the student at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and 17th Street and then immediately charged a young boy, who took cover under a parked car. The fugitive was finally shot down in an empty lot by two detectives at the scene. The Marquette student suffered only minor injuries.
March 11, 2011: Governor Scott Walker signs the budget repair bill into law, repealing collective bargaining for most public employee unions. Walker cited the passage as a success, preventing the layoff of 1500 state workers and taking critical steps to balance the budget.
March 13, 1990: A truck and its driver are swallowed by a massive sinkhole at 30th Street and North Avenue in Milwaukee after torrential rains and a broken water main washed away the ground. Three firefighters had to be lowered into the sinkhole to retrieve the man, who was uninjured. The flash rain and hail storm dropped an inch of precipitation in less than 15 minutes, causing many Milwaukee streets to flood.
March 14, 1980: A crowd of 100 gathered to protest the arson that destroyed a future low-income housing apartment complex in Wauwatosa. The deliberately set fire earlier in the week represented Wauwatosa’s attitude of intolerance for the low-income and minority families that would inhabit the complex, protestors said. A week earlier at a City Hall meeting, residents had expressed criticism of the project, fearing a rise in neighborhood crime. The building, subsidized by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, was rebuilt.