In the mid-1970s a deposit of valuable minerals was discovered in Forest County, Wis. Since then, mining companies have swayed over whether to begin the Crandon Mine Project — an underground project that would remove 55 million tons of ore from the sulfide mineral deposit.
Nicolet Minerals currently holds mining rights to the land, and its new president Gordon Conner now plans to go ahead with the project, which would use up to 20 tons of cyanide per month to separate minerals such as silver and gold from ore of zinc, copper and lead-bearing minerals.
Along with a longtime concern for tourism in the affected area, the cyanide problem is why geologists and ecologists of northern Wisconsin have called upon Assembly Environmental Resources Committee Chair, Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud, R-Eastman, to hold a public hearing and committee vote on the bill to ban the use of cyanide in Wisconsin mines.
The Crandon Mine Project would take an estimated 34 years, and would result in 45 million tons of tailings and waste disposal. In addition, 40 percent of this waste would be disposed at the tailings management area, about 90 ft. underground and 60 percent would be used as backfill for an underground mine.
Many are skeptical of the Crandon Mine Project, especially after several large economic mining forces, including BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto Zinc and Exxon abandoned the project in part because they could not prove that they could safely mine the site.
Cyanide from mining has been held responsible for numerous environmental catastrophes in the past, and more cost-efficient alternatives do exist. At least three mines in Canada are currently using sulfur dioxide and starch to extract copper, zinc, lead and pyrite ores, as the proposed Crandon Mine plans to.
Debate is ongoing as to whether substances besides cyanide can be used for separation.
“You might find that you’d have to use such large amounts of other substances that it would end up being more dangerous than cyanide, though. In this case the cyanide would be transported indoors and in solid form, so it should be perfectly safe,” Scott Loomans, staffer for Rep. Johnsrud, said.
Ecologists remain adamant about the dangers of cyanide.
“There have already been major cyanide spills in the U.S. and in Europe. If an accident was to occur in Wisconsin and cyanide was released, it would be a disaster. It’s just not worth the risk of using cyanide,” Claire Schmidt of Clean Wisconsin said, adding that the market value has been lowered due to excessive mining.
Environmentalists say that Wisconsin citizens largely support the ban.
“It’s clear that Wisconsin citizens want a ban in cyanide. To deny the hearing would be to deny citizens the opportunity to speak out about an important issue,” Schmidt said.
Others say that the public hearing will probably not accomplish what the authors of the bill hope.
“Cyanide is used legally in other places, so there really is no reason to make an exception for mines, since apparently cyanide can be used safely,” Loomans said.
Conner is confident that he and his company can run the project smoothly. The Conner family originally owned the Crandon Mine site before selling it to Exxon in the 1970s and has been in the timbering business for the last 130 years. Conner claims that ecological concerns are as important to his company as to the many who oppose the Crandon Mine Project.