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Hardrock Mining–Baggage in Hand–Arrives in the Great Lakes
Fueled by high metals prices, the nation’s hardrock mining boom has swept into the Great Lakes. In a region with almost no history of hardrock or “sulfide” mining, there is now extensive exploration, a score of proposed developments, and one very controversial mine already under construction.
Iron mining has long been a fixture of the Great Lakes economy. However, sulfide mining is nothing like iron mining. Sulfide mining is the mining of metals such as copper, lead, nickel, and zinc from sulfide ore bodies. When sulfide ores in tailings or waste rock are exposed to air and water, they oxidize to form sulfuric acid which in turn dissolves heavy metals such arsenic, lead, and mercury. The increased acidity and dissolved metals from mine waste and runoff poison plants, fish, and wildlife.
Mines in the western U.S. have been cited for hundreds of violations of the Clean Water Act and mines that have not caused water quality problems are rare as hens’ teeth.
State Laws Not up to the Task of Protecting the Great Lake’s Water and Communities
Nickel may demand $17,000 a ton, but water is unquestionably the Great Lakes’ most precious resource. The Great Lakes are the largest surface freshwater system on earth, accounting for about 84% of North America’s surface fresh water. In an era of increasing global demand for fresh water, the purity of the water in the Great Lakes basin is a matter of global significance.
Unfortunately, weak laws and lax enforcement in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Canadian province of Ontario leave the Great Lakes vulnerable to the adverse effects of sulfide mining. A new report prepared by National Wildlife Federation and Ecojustice Canada finds that state and provincial laws, regulations, and resources are grossly insufficient to adequately regulate the onslaught of new sulfide mines.
What’s even more alarming is that no one is looking at the cumulative effects of these mines. The Great Lakes basin is a single, incredibly important ecosystem, but sulfide mining is being regulated by different political entities with different jurisdictions and inconsistent laws and environmental policies.
The Feds Need to Step Up
Ultimately, we need to strengthen state management of sulfide mining. In the short term, the federal government needs to fill in the gaps where the states are falling short. There are two things federal agencies can do right now to help protect the waters and people of the Great Lakes region.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers should revise the Clean Water Act’s regulations to prohibit sulfide mines from using wetlands, streams, and other waters as dump sites for mining waste, a practice that is currently rampant within the industry. Regardless of the merits of an individual mine, it is just common sense that untreated mining waste should never be dumped into natural waters.
- EPA should conduct a scientific analysis of the Great Lakes basin, similar to the agency’s recently-released assessment of large-scale mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, to determine how sulfide mines, individually and cumulatively, may affect the water quality, aquatic ecosystems, fish, wildlife, and human inhabitants of the region.