A History of Mining Failures in Northern Wisconsin

Tom Tiffany’s mining fantasies have not been working out.  He authored what may go down as one of the worst laws ever written, designed to create a low cost iron mine by removing the top of the Penokee Hills and filling in the headwaters of the Bad River, a major river feeding Lake Superior, with the mine wastes.  It did not end well for Mr. Tiffany.

Then Senator Tiffany’s dream came true when he was able overturn the so-called “Mining Moratorium Law”, despite overwhelming opposition to his scheme.  The law was never a moratorium on metallic mining in our State but contained a common sense, “prove it first” requirement that the industry did not like.

The repeal of this law was treated by some in the industry, and much of the media, as a greenlight for Metallic Sulfide Mining in the Northwoods, but an examination of the difficult history of this type of mining in our Northwoods environment tells a different story.

Sulfide Mining became an issue in Northern Wisconsin when the Flambeau Deposit was discovered in 1968.  Kennecott’s mining proposal was stopped in 1976 by local control, the year after Exxon Minerals discovered the world-class zinc/copper/precious metals deposit southwest of Crandon. The Exxon Mine was halted in 1986 amid local opposition to the storage of sulfide waste materials, and the dewatering of ground and surface waters in the Wolf River watershed.

By 1989 several mineral deposits had been discovered in northern Wisconsin and both resulting mining proposals had failed.  Mineral exploration was intense, and interest was high, including for an area on County Forest just upstream of the Willow Flowage where Exxon and Kerr-McGee had been gathering data, but their activities were limited because the Forest was closed to metallic mining.

When Oneida County made the fateful, and extremely unpopular decision to open the Forest to metallic mining, Noranda Minerals was quick to secure a Mineral Lease to a vast wetland area upstream of the Flowage.  Noranda promptly discovered the Lynne Deposit in 1990 and initiated a mine permitting process in 1992, but soon stopped the process when the obvious water issues came to light.  Noranda eventually asked for an extension on their lease with the County and was denied.  Noranda formally released its interest in the Lynne Site on March 10th, 1998.  Noranda was a major player in northern Wisconsin, involved at Pelican River, Wolf River, and Reef, but they finally hit it big when they discovered the Lynne Deposit.  Ironically, it also marked the beginning of their exit from the State.

A group of Supervisors began pushing for a mine at Lynne again in 2009.  They were turned back three times in 2012 amid overwhelming public and tribal opposition.  They tried again in 2018 with a Referendum Question following the repeal of the “Moratorium Law”.  The Referendum Question was defeated by a substantial margin of opposition to leasing the Lynne Site, with only three of the twenty Towns favoring it.

The discovery of the Lynne Deposit physically brought the sulfide mining issue into Oneida County, and it clarified the problems with sulfide mining in this environment, already known to close observers of the Exxon Project.

In 1993 the Flambeau Mine began production, but it was dramatically scaled back compared to the original proposal, removing only the rich, upper portion of the deposit, leaving the rest, and shipping the ore to Canada for processing.  After partial reclamation, the project was plagued by nagging water quality issues.

In 1997 the so-called “Mining Moratorium Law” was approved and was tested during the permitting process for the new Crandon Mine proposal, but it was somewhat of a moot point as the project suffered from social opposition and a myriad of environmental problems including an ill-fated scheme to pump the wastewater through a 38-mile long discharge pipeline, drawing both Oneida and Lincoln Counties into the fray.

Tom Tiffany and his cronies undoubtedly hoped that repeal of the “moratorium law” would be a complete reset, creating a greenlight for sulfide mines beneath our watery world.  They want the Counties and Towns to believe that they must accept and promote sulfide mining, even removing local control to facilitate it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The historical reality is that multiple mining proposals failed substantially before passage of the “moratorium law” and the final Crandon project was doomed to failure despite it.  Local Governments in Oneida County have recently gone on record opposing Sulfide Mining in the County and mineral exploration is receiving even more scrutiny than before it ended during the 1990s.  The physical and social realities on the ground that caused these failures have not changed.  Most of the Industry realize that Northern Wisconsin is an unwise investment because of these realities.