Metallic mine allegedly polluting Wisconsin river

Flambeau Mining Company (FMC) is facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit following allegations that it contaminated a Wisconsin river.

Filed last week, the lawsuit claims FMC, located in Ladysmith, Wis., is responsible for the un-permitted discharge of pollutants into a tributary of the Flambeau River, called “Stream C.” The pollutants — copper, iron and zinc — have continued to enter the stream from a “bio-filter” that stored acid mine drainage during the mine’s operation from 1993-1997.

The Wisconsin Resource Protection Council (WRPC), the Center for Biological Diversity and Laura Gauger, an independent party, filed the lawsuit. According to the Clean Water Act, citizens may file a federal lawsuit against polluters alleged to be discharging pollution without a permit.

WRPC is an organization focused on harmful mining. Gauger wrote a book about the mine in 1997 and said the main concern is the metallic sulfide that existed within the mine during its operation. This could create sulfuric acid in the water and air, she said.

“Even if the water leaving the bio-filter is cleaner than when it enters, it still contains too much copper,” Gauger said. “When water reaches the Flambeau (river), it gets diluted … you might not be able to see it, but it’s there.”

When the mine closed, FMC agreed to monitor the discharge from the bio-filter to the stream, checking for elevated levels of toxic waste. According to the company’s lab results each year since 1998, discharge copper levels have ranged from 11 to 91 parts per billion annually. Wisconsin’s toxicity water quality criterion for copper is 2.7 parts per billion.

Marc Fink, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said no studies of the river or its species have been done. He also said the Environmental Protection Agency sets toxic waste limits, and anything over those limits could be harmful to the species within the habitat.

According to a statement by Jana Murphy, environmental and reclamation manager of FMC, the company is “disappointed” with the lawsuit and plans to defend itself against legal action.

“We are the first and only non-ferrous metallic mineral mine to be constructed, operated and reclaimed in full compliance with State of Wisconsin regulations, and in accordance with all of its permits,” the statement said. “We are proud of our strong record of environmental compliance, job creation, economic development and our continuing role in the community.”

Although Murphy issued this statement the day the lawsuit was filed, no further word has been said. She did, however, say in an e-mail that the company is working on a Q&A fact sheet in response to the lawsuit.

Jamie Saul, Attorney at Law LLC, represents the suing parties. Although he has not heard anything further from FMC, he said he is optimistic to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.

“The mine has been trying to clean itself up, but they haven’t moved fast enough and it hasn’t been effective,” Saul said. “With this lawsuit, we’re hoping to crop some change and hold them accountable.”

Consequences of the lawsuit would include FMC either cleaning up the toxic discharge or attaining a permit. Gauger said an outright notice of intent was filed on June 2009 for this lawsuit. It stated potential remedies up to $37,500 per day for violating the Clean Water Act, resulting in a total of $3.5 million.

According to Melissa Scanlan, adjunct professor of law at the Law School, this lawsuit could affect more than just FMC. Scanlan currently teaches a course titled “Clean Water Act Workshop,” and said the case is important because it raises a red flag about the continuing pollution problems that can occur at metallic mining sites.