Mining industry set for comeback in Wisconsin

LADYSMITH, Wis. - The sounds of industry still occasionally bellow through Ladysmith, but in the past decade, the rumbling reminders have faded away from the northern Wisconsin city.

"Unfortunately, the recession of 2007, 2008 hit this area very hard," Ladysmith city administrator Alan Christianson said.

Christianson saw the city's housing industry take a major hit during the recession, losing hundreds of jobs.

"It's been a struggle actually ever since," Christianson said.
 
In the years before the recession, Christianson and the city saw a far different economy. One of the industries that drove its success is now completely gone. Signs it ever even existed are hard to find, but Christianson remembers what mining did.

"In my estimation, the upsides of mining economically are potentially very significant," he said.

From 1993 to 1997, Ladysmith was home to the Flambeau Mine. Through four and a half years, the mine generated copper, silver, and gold. Christianson said it also created dozens of local jobs, sparked several other industrial projects, and brought millions of dollars in taxes and revenues to the city.  Those benefits continued years after the mine had closed.

"By the time we were into the mid 2000's, in that area we were as close to normalcy as we've been economically here for decades," Christianson said.

The small, closed mine in the small city of Ladysmith is now central to a much larger debate - the future of mining across Wisconsin.

One year after the Flambeau Mine closed, Governor Tommy Thompson signed into law what's known as the 'Mining Moratorium.' The 1998 law required mining applicants to prove similar mines had operated and closed in North America without polluting ground or surface water. No mines have operated in Wisconsin since the law took effect.

"I think that mining can have a role in our economy here in Wisconsin," Republican State Senator Tom Tiffany said.

Tiffany authored a bill ending the mining moratorium. In December, Governor Scott Walker signed it into law.

"This could bring tremendous wealth to the people of Wisconsin," Tiffany said.

Tiffany said mining in the Badger State could be a multi-billion dollar industry.

"All those minerals we use in modern, 21st century society, we have it in abundance," he explained. "We don't know exactly how much is there, but i know economic geologists believe it's in the billions of dollars that's recoverable here in wisconsin."

Tiffany said the industry will bring jobs at the mines and across the state in the form of spinoff businesses, similar to the impacts at the Flambeau Mine and in Ladysmith. 

But it's not the economics that is the source of some people's concern. Some fear that safety is now being overlooked.

"The law did relax some standards for mining," local Sierra Club's mining chair Dave Blouin said. "It relaxed requirements for mitigating wetlands. It made it easier for mining companies to put waste in wetlands, and it relaxed other standards, especially public hearing standards."
 
Blouin said the previous mining moratorium didn't prevent the mining industry from coming to Wisconsin. He says what did is the history of mining.

"The hard rock mining industry, that mines in these metalic sulfides, has an almost impossibly bad track record," Blouin said. "They have yet to operate mines and close them safely when mining in these ores without causing pollution."

But mining supporters point to Flambeau. Tiffany said it's a clean closure. Christianson agrees, and said the site has been restored to a recreation facility with walking trails. Tiffany also said new technology has improved mining's safety. Opponents said it's not that simple.

"It is a long-term issue," Blouin said. "Those wastes were buried in the pit, and they're going to be there forever, and it's something that's going to have to be monitored."

Blouin also said part of what makes the Flambeau Mine a largely successful closure is that the ore went to Canada for processing. He said future mines could be more harmful.

"Our confidence level in the mining industry's ability to deal with metallic sulfide mining is very low," Blouin said.

Both sides said actual mining in Wisconsin is still years away. Still, one company is already looking in the state and nearby. Aquila Resources is focused on the Back Forty mine near the Michigan, Wisconsin border. The mine has drawn sharp opposition from the Menominee Indian Tribe, which fears the mine could pollute the nearby Menominee River. Along with those environmental concerns, the tribe has also expressed cultural concerns. Tribal members have protested Aquila's proposal and brought concerns to Michigan's environmental agency.

"I think one of the most important things we're trying to do is not only protecting our water but our ancestors that are in the ground," Menominee Tribe Community Organizer Guy Reiter said. "There's three known burial mound grounds that are right within this project area, and they very much mean a lot to all of us. We're going to do whatever we can to protect them."

Aquila is also looking at two northern Wisconsin projects called Bend and Reef. A company spokesman says, "The Wisconsin assets are very early exploration projects. We have not completed a lot of work on the Wisconsin sites and it will be some time before we concentrate on their development."

Tiffany hopes the future of mining, while years away, could have a lasting impact.

"I think success would be 10 to 15 exploratory rigs that are working here on a regular basis, two to three mines operating on an annual basis, and that you have an industry that lasts for a century. That's really what this could be all about."

Leaders in Ladysmith will also keep a close eye on the industry. Underneath the flambeau mine is a large deposit of zinc, representing a chance to jumpstart the economy while balancing environmental concerns.

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