Damakant Jayshi

Residents from across Marathon County on Tuesday continued expressing concerns over proposed exploratory drilling for gold in the Easton Reef Deposit, urging county officials to reject a permit from GreenLight Metals.

Speaking during the public comments portion of Tuesday’s joint meeting of Marathon County’s Metallic Mining and Environmental Resources Committees, several residents asked county officials to consider the potential damage any such drilling would cause to the drinking water and the environment in the region before the proposal moves forward.

But officials from GreenLight Metals Inc., a Canadian company with an office in Wisconsin, insist that fears over potential groundwater contamination are unfounded and say the company will comply with state and federal mining standards.

According to county officials, Easton Reef Deposit is “estimated to contain approximately 120,000 ounces of gold.”

“You can’t unring the bell,” said James Botsford. “This is the moment in time to not turn a blind eye to common sense and the legacy of our lovely area.” Botsford asked if there has ever been a community that is proud of a “gaping hole and the toxic slag heaps that ooze unstoppable poisons after the distant owners are gone.”

Another resident, Ron James, came with props to show what the proposed drilling could do. He said the first phase likely incorporates drilling fluids containing PFAS, chemicals that would wind up in the groundwater.

Kathy Konte-Barth also expressed concerns over groundwater and the clean water in the county that she said will be polluted by mining operations. She added that none of the mining operators have proven that they could operate for 10 years without contaminating the surrounding water.

Nancy Tabaka Stencil said mining companies often tell everyone that gold is needed, but said there is plenty of gold already. “We don’t need any more gold, so there is no reason to drill.”

Every resident who addressed the exploratory drilling topic at the meeting opposed it. Some reminded the Environmental Resources Committee members about their stated mission, to “protect and enhance the quantity and quality of potable groundwater and potable surface water supplies.”

Other commenters expressed fears that the company’s activities would not be adequately monitored by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as they are understaffed. But Roberta Walls, a DNR official who participated in the meeting remotely, said the state agency would exercise its oversight authority if the company received the permit. The company is required to comply with conditions from various state and federal agencies.

Residents acknowledged that the county’s hands are largely tied since a state law, passed in 2017, took authority away from local governments.

Critics have requested that elected representatives deny the permit for gold drilling. On July 12, Ho-Chunk nation, one of 11 federally recognized Native American tribes, also opposed the exploratory drilling for gold, saying the site is too close to the land in their jurisdiction and that the drilling will impact air, water and natural resources, among other concerns.

Before the joint meeting began, some residents gathered outside the Marathon County Courthouse and addressed the media to voice their concerns.

During the meeting, two representatives from GreenLight Metals tried to allay resident fears following a presentation by Shad Harvey, Land Resources Manager at the Department of Conservation, Planning and Zoning, on the metallic mining exploration process.

CPZ officials and the company have emphasized that they are dealing with a permit for exploratory drilling at the moment and not with full-fledged mining. GreenLight’s application for the permit is still pending with the county. The company’s state-wide license for exploration was renewed for a year on July 1 by the DNR.

“We are planning a very limited exploration program,” said Dan Colton, President and CEO of GreenLight Metals, during a presentation about the company’s goals. He added that he has never come across an example of exploratory drilling causing contamination or resulting in either short- or long-term effects on environment. He said the company takes all safety precautions seriously.

Colton said the company is aware of the community’s concerns and wants to engage with them. His colleague, Steve Donohue, director at the company’s Wisconsin office, said the company will form an advisory committee, which he would chair, with members from the community to address residents’ concerns. Those details are yet to be worked out, he said.

Detailing the company’s drilling program, Colton said the company plans roughly two, six-week drilling events between fall 2022 and winter 2023, with the goal of 2,400 meters of drilling. Colton added that results of the drilling will determine whether or not the company would ultimately mine for gold and copper at Easton Reef, and that decision could happen only after about seven years.

Colton and Donohue said the metals they aim to explore are needed for a green economy, and vowed to address the concerns expressed. They also tied the exploration effort to national security, saying the U.S. is too dependent on foreign, adversarial, countries for some of the minerals that could be mined at the site. Producing the minerals in the county would lessen that dependency, they said. They also said that they would only be using DNR-approved drilling fluids.

Residents rue repeal of Wisconsin’s model ‘Prove It First’ law on mining

During Tuesday’s meeting, the state’s now repealed ‘Prove It First’ law made a few appearances.

Mosinee resident Dan Barth said the fact that “sulfide mining always pollutes and toxifies water in the area downstream, no ifs ands or buts” led to the passing of Wisconsin Act 171 in 1998, known as the ‘Prove it First’ Law.

Barth said the law was “completely bipartisan and signed by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson,” but was later repealed by a partisan Republican majority and signed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2017. The repeal effectively removed the moratorium on mining activities that was in place since the law’s passage.

He was speaking about the Mining Moratorium Law, which the Wisconsin State Legislature, including, then Rep. Scott Walker, approved by overwhelming bipartisan margins (29-3 in the Senate and 91-6 in the Assembly).

That law was preceded by a 1995 DNR report on acid mining that was referenced by the Sierra Club, which said “there are no ideal metallic mineral mining sites which can be pointed to as the model approach in preventing acidic drainage industry-wide.” 

The moratorium law imposed stringent conditions on companies seeking to explore the state for minerals.

The law “requires sulfide mining applicants to prove a similar mine has operated for 10 years somewhere in North America without causing pollution, and it requires that applicants prove a similar mine has been closed in North America for a decade without causing pollution as well.”

An area legislator played a role in the passage of WI Act 134 that repealed the moratorium the law. Tom Tiffany, then a GOP state senator representing Hazelhurst, announced his intention to repeal the law. Tiffany, who is now a U.S. Congressman representing Wisconsin’s 7th District, introduced the Mining for America Act in August 2017.

“I don’t believe there should be a moratorium on legal processes,” Tiffany said then. The moratorium on mining in Wisconsin was lifted by Republican lawmakers later that year.