This Week in History

Mining Moratorium Bill passed in 1997

By - Mar 12th, 2012 04:00 am
Aan anti-Exxon rally at the State Capitol in March 1994. Photo by Al Gedicks.

An anti-Exxon rally at the State Capitol in March 1994. Photo courtesy Al Gedicks.

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.

Six years later, members of the Forest County Potawatomi and the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa celebrate the handover of the land by Crandon mine owners, thus bringing the end of the controversy. (Photo: Midwest Treaty Network)

“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.”

In response to the grassroots effort, the mining industry and its supporters launched a million-dollar lobbying effort against the legislation. Gedicks also cites the extensive history of cooperation between the state and the mining industry, especially in the form of campaign contributions, as impacting mining decisions in Wisconsin. Among the contributors were Exxon, the largest corporation in the world, Rio Algom, the largest mining company in Canada, and the Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce Association. Gedicks also points to Governor Tommy Thompson’s appointment of former chief Exxon lobbyist, James Klauser, as head of the Department of Administration for pushing the mining companies’ agenda.

“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.

Despite the powerful opposition to the bill, Governor Thompson caved in to the opposition and signed the Mining Moratorium Bill into law in April of 1998.

“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.

Scott Walker signs the amended bill into law.

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.

0 thoughts on “This Week in History: Mining Moratorium Bill passed in 1997”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for running this timely and important story!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Current DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp – – appointed by Walker for her “chamber-of-commerce mentality” (his words) – – along with two of her top aides with top positions at various builders, road-building and trade groups – – says living with the mine is all about “flexibility.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Holly Nearman. These history columns are fascinating. — Strini

  4. Anonymous says:

    Much earlier, I remember well working to pass legislation by working as a grassroots educator-fundraiser and citizen lobbyist with Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade. With an office across the street from the Capitol dome, We and more than a dozen crews with field offices in Madison, Milwaukee and Appleton went to most of the houses in the state of Wisconsin.

    It was during those years that I learned of Joe Citizens’ overwhelming support for keeping the state’s natural resources – including her water and air – clean.

    When years later the Decade evolved into Clean Wisconsin, we (the citizens of Wisconsin) looked back at the accomplishments which until now have received bipartisan support on Main Street, in farm country, and by legislators and executives across the political spectrum.

    Today, the state is more divided than ever before. Sadly, the environment is taking the hits.

    A clean environment is not a political issue. It is a right of all Wisconsinites and Americans to have clean water, air, an abundance of wildlife and forests and most of all the quiet green space that Aldo Leopold recognized a century ago was essential for not only sustaining their physical presence on earth but for their spiritual well-being as well.

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