Mining companies will now have the opportunity to use sulfide to extract minerals like copper and gold from the ground in Wisconsin.
Gov. Scott Walker signed into law on Monday a bill lifting the state's effective moratorium on sulfide mining, a move supporters say will clear the way for an economic boost to depressed areas of the state. But opponents say the environmental risks are too great to allow such activity.
The bill's authors, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, say it allows conversations about mining to occur that cannot happen under current law. Both have emphasized that companies that want to mine in Wisconsin will have to work with local communities in order to do so.
Under current law, a mining company must prove a sulfide mine can operate for 10 years and be closed for another 10 without polluting groundwater or surface waters with acid rock drainage. That legislation was passed with near-unanimous, bipartisan support in 1998 and signed into law by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Walker signed the bill in Rhinelander, with the support of several Wisconsin natives and residents who say they hope to work in the mining industry in their home state thanks to the bill's passage.
Taylor Pitlik, 22, of Sugar Camp, is a senior in Michigan Technological University's mining engineering program. A fourth-generation aggregate miner, she said she looks forward to working in her home state.
Several other students in mining and geological engineering programs have similar goals, according to the Natural Resources Development Association.
In a statement, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin director Eric Bott said the law will bring back "good-paying, family-sustaining, blue-collar jobs" to northern Wisconsin.
Opponents of the legislation, like Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, have argued that if a sulfide mine could operate safely, the existing law wouldn't have prevented it from doing so in Wisconsin.
In sulfide mining, once rock is extracted from the pit, a chemical process separates the unwanted “tailings” — about 90 percent of the material — from the desired metals — for instance, gold, zinc, copper and silver. One of the chemicals used in the separation process is cyanide.
The tailings are mostly sulfide, which, when mixed with air and water, form a toxic acid that acts as a long-term pollutant, turning rivers bright orange. Tailings can be neutralized with alkaline material like limestone.
Conservation groups and tribal leaders say the new legislation would put the state's long-term environmental integrity at risk in exchange for short-term profits.
Dave Blouin of the Sierra Club John Muir chapter said in a statement that by signing the bill, Walker embraced "highly polluting and damaging mining over long-term sustainable development for central and northern Wisconsin."
But the bill's supporters say technology has advanced to allow Wisconsin to benefit financially from mining without jeopardizing its environment.
The Menominee Indian Tribe announced last month that it will sue the federal government if it does not assume permitting authority for a proposed sulfide mine to extract zinc, gold, copper and silver from an area in Upper Michigan located about 150 feet from the Menominee River.
The company behind the Back Forty Project, Aquila Resources, owns two deposits in Wisconsin.