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Proposed mine plans thwarted

CRANDON, Wis. - With ceremonial drums beating, emotional members of the Mole Lake Sokaogan Chippewa and Forest County Potawatomi tribes in Wisconsin hung a huge "Sold" sign outside the offices of the Nicolet Mineral Co. "This is a day that will be remembered for years," said Sandra Rachal, chairwoman of the Mole Lake Chippewa Band.

The celebration comes after the two tribes purchased Nicolet Minerals Co. for $16.5 million, ending a turbulent 25-year battle as to whether a proposed copper/zinc mine would be opened, which would have been located between the two reservations and encompassed 5,770 acres. "We have bought the Crandon mine," said Chairwoman Rachal "and we will withdraw the (mining) permit application." The historic final papers were signed Oct. 28. The tribes have no plans to mine the 55-million ton zinc and copper deposit underground. The Mole Lake tribe now assumes ownership of Nicolet Mineral Co.

The purchase allows for the protection of the headwaters of the Wolf River, a vital groundwater source in northern Wisconsin, which would have been contaminated with toxic residuals from the mine. It also prevents the destruction of Spirit Hill, the burial site for hundreds of warriors, a result of the great battle between Chippewa and Dakota warriors who fought over the manoomin (wild rice) beds in Mole Lake in the 1800s.

The land will be divided between the two tribes. Mineral and some timber rights were also included in the purchase. The cost will be divided, with the Potawatomi utilizing gaming revenue in the amount of $8.5 million and Mole Lake contributing $8 million, acquired through loans.

While tribal members and grass roots groups throughout the state were rejoicing, Nicolet Minerals Co. Project Manager Gordon R. Connor blasted the deal, blaming the "anti-corporate culture" in Wisconsin for the failure of the mine. Mining interest groups have spent more than $150 million on this project, which has been difficult at times for those involved. Government regulations and political schemes have helped keep the mine from opening.

The conflict began in the 1970s, when Exxon Coal and Minerals Company proposed the mine after examining the granite bedrock around Lake Superior. Reflecting the difficulties of ownership and the costly regulatory and permitting process since then, the mine had been passed to a subsidiary, Rio Algom Ltd., which then sold it to BHP Billiton in November 2000. Nicolet Minerals Co. acquired the mine site this past April.

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Connor did not disclose whether Nicolet Minerals profited from this purchase. The value of the property has been estimated at between $52 and $94 million. Connor claims that the mine would have created hundreds of jobs and created a tourist draw. "It is a sad day for economic development in northern Wisconsin."

Gus Frank, Potawatomi tribal chairman, disagrees. "It ends the threat to the tourism economy - the economy that most of us in northern Wisconsin, including the tribes, depend on. We're proud to be a part of protecting this area for future generations."

If constructed, the Crandon zinc-copper sulfide mine would have produced 44 million tons of poisonous solid waste "tailings" containing mercury, lead, arsenic, copper, zinc and cadmium. Once exposed to air or water, sulfide ore creates sulfuric acid, which is toxic for thousands of years.

Since the beginning of this controversial mining proposal, the issue has been one of turmoil. Yet, positive changes were brought about when both sides of the spearfishing/treaty rights issue (which raged in this area of Wisconsin in the 1980s) put aside their bad feelings to fight for this cause, seeking to protect their groundwater and environment. The issue exemplified Wisconsin residents at their best.

Wisconsin state leaders gave the deal their nod of approval. Governor Jim Doyle announced "The deal means that environmentally harmful cyanide mining will not take place in the Crandon area." State Representative Spencer Black, D-Madison, author of the state's mining moratorium law and a vocal opponent of the mine, concluded "This is a wonderful conclusion to a long fight waged to stop this mine and protect the Wolf River."

Ironically, Wisconsin's nickname "Badger State" results from the mining industry in the 19th century, which thrived at that time.