Track Record of Irresponsibility

Sulfide Mining Overview | Risks to Clean Water | History of Pollution | Threat to the Economy | What You Can Do

Unfortunately, sulfide mining companies have a long track record of unpredicted pollution and abandoning mines, leaving taxpayers to payfor clean-up or live with the pollution.

Perhaps the best evidence of the industry’s inability to mine safely comes from Wisconsin. There, voters approved a law in 1997 that forbid any new mines unless the company could point to an example of a mine that had operated and been closed without polluting for 10 years. No new sulfide mines have been proposed in the state since.

Failed Predictions

Pollution from sulfide mining is notoriously hard to anticipate. Mining companies often claim that their mines will not pollute, only to end up having significant problems once they start digging.

A landmark study in 2006 looked at the environmental impact statements for 25 recent hardrock mines which were representatives of contemporary mining. The research found that:

  • 100 percent of mines predicted compliance with water quality standards before operations began.
  • 76 percent of mines studied in detail exceeded water quality standards due to mining activity.
  • Mitigation measures predicted to prevent water quality exceedances failed at 64 percent of the mines studied in detail.

The study examined in-depth mines which had an elevated potential for pollution. It is worth noting that technical experts believe the parts of Minnesota where sulfide mining is proposed meet that classification, due to its water-rich environment. Of the mines “with elevated potential for acid drainage or contaminant leaching:”

  • 85% of the mines near surface water exceeded water quality standards
  • 93% of the mines near groundwater exceeded water quality standards.
  • Of the sites that did develop acid drainage, 89% predicted that they would not.

Taxpayers left holding the bag

Rather than pay to clean up and treat the discharge from sulfide mines, which can last for decades or centuries, mining companies have a shameful habit of filing for bankruptcy when the mine is no longer profitable and walking away. Citizens are forced to choose between either living with the pollution, or paying for clean up themselves. Such clean-up often costs tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

One common practice is to require mining companies to put up a “damage deposit” before they start mining. This financial assurance is available if the company goes bankrupt, abandons the mine, or is otherwise unwilling or unable to pay for clean-up.

A paper released in 2003 found that U.S. taxpayers have been left with clean-up bills at abandoned mines adding up to several billion dollars:

American taxpayers today are potentially liable for $1 billion to more than $12 billion in clean-upcosts for hardrock mining sites—those designed to extract metals. Because mining companies are inadequately insured to pay for cleaning up their toxic pollution, the public is left with staggering costs for something as basic to human life as clean water.

Unfortunately, not even this system works perfectly. The mining companies are experts at using subsidiaries and corporate shell games to escape these costly clean-ups, once they have made their profits on a mine.

As Americans have learned in the past decade, from Enron to Bear Stearns, large corporations and financial institutions are not as permanent or as trustworthy as we would like them to be. Also, damage deposits assume clean-up is possible at all. But, once acid mine drainage gets into a river, it will go wherever the water takes it.

Wisconsin’s Flambeau Mine: A poor poster child

The Flambeau Mine

Sulfide mining companies frequently point to the Flambeau Mine, near Ladysmith, WI as an example of “doing it right.” Unfortunately, more than 15 years after the mine closed, it is still polluting and is the subject of citizen lawsuits against the state to force the government to enforce water quality laws.

A study released in 2009 by the Center for Science in Public Participation found that discharge from the mine is contaminating the nearby Flambeau River:

“Copper contamination in excess of Wisconsin water quality standards is reaching the Flambeau River from the Flambeau mine site and the Flambeau pit is leaching contaminants that exceed Wisconsin groundwater quality standards to beyond the slurry wall designed to separate pit water from the Flambeau River. It appears that the state is allowing these unpermitted discharges to continue under the assumptions that (1) dilution in the Flambeau River is such that no impact is occurring, and that (2) no contaminated groundwater from the pit is flowing under the Flambeau River toward the groundwater compliance boundary.” - Report on Groundwater and Surface Water Contamination at the Flambeau Mine (PDF)


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