Reflections on Extraction 2: Whose Risks, Whose Choices?

CHE Group at Flambeau Mine with Industrial Outlot in Background

Last week, we introduced a series of essays reflecting on CHE’s 2014 Place-Based Workshop, “Landscapes of Extraction,” which explored how Wisconsin’s land and people have been shaped by mining practices. This week, the series continues with three essays that consider how communities weigh the balances between private gain and public well-being, individual enterprise and regulatory caution, and economic necessity and environmental risk. In the United States, most mining operations are private concerns, and they can produce considerable wealth for both their owners and their employees. The risks of mining, however, are often borne collectively: a scar in a forested landscape or a toxic contaminant seeping into the groundwater supply will affect everyone living nearby, regardless of their participation in the mining activity. A democratic society is thus left to wrestle with questions of who has the right to make choices about where, whether, and how to engage in extraction.

—Garrett Dash Nelson


Messages from the Mined Lands

Anthony Pietsch

Soil and water might fill abandoned mines, but reclamation depends on storytelling. A reclaimed mine’s core message is that economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive; by restoring the land after mining activity has ceased, both goals are possible. Taken alone, however, this message can be deceptive. No two reclaimed mines tell precisely the same story because their transformations are influenced by contemporary environmental politics, which subtly shape the goals of reclamation even as reclamation reshapes the land. By assessing the messages encoded in these lands alongside the politics of their rebirth, we can better understand the variable intentions behind reclamation’s seemingly consistent purpose. Considered together, the Jackson County Iron Mine (JCIM) and the Flambeau Mine offer shapes and stories that teach us about the changing goals of reclamation during a twenty-year period in Wisconsin.

Anthony Pietsch at Wazee Lake, a former Wisconsin mining landscape. Photo by William Cronon, 2014. Click to enlarge.

Anthony Pietsch at Wazee Lake, a former Wisconsin mining landscape. Photo by William Cronon, 2014. Click to enlarge.

Obscuring Mines to Settle Minds

Wazee Lake, the reclaimed JCIM, offers a subtle suggestion: forget the mine that was. Indeed, most people would be hard-pressed to find that Wazee Lake had ever been anything but a lake. Mining officials and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) concealed the land’s past by remaking the open-pit into Wisconsin’s deepest inland lake. Even as land managers entombed most mining remnants in water, they shrouded the rest with vegetation. By covering landmarks like mining waste piles with grass and trees, the reclaimers ensured that those reminders of industry would be almost indistinguishable from natural hills. With mining’s material legacy stripped away or concealed, few people other than scuba divers would discover Wazee Lake’s industrial origins.

Given the timing of the mine’s reclamation, hiding its history made sense. By the early 1980s, large segments of the public expressed growing confidence in Wisconsin’s regulatory program for reclamation, finalized only in 1981. Reclaimed over the next few years, the JCIM presented a critical challenge for regulators and miners, who had to validate the public’s faith in state regulation. Erasing the visible legacies of mining from the landscape could show that state and corporate officials had embraced new legal standards and could enact them competently. Devoid of obvious industrial influence, the new water recreation area bolstered the reclaimers’ argument that concern about past mining activity was unnecessary: without reminders that the landscape was once an industrial site, Wisconsinites could embrace the new lake without anxiety and thus keep faith in the regulatory system. In this era, reclamation achieved success by letting people forget that it had ever occurred at all.

“Welcome to the Reclaimed Flambeau Mine!” Photo by William Cronon, 2014. Click to Enlarge.

Mining the Past to Shape the Future

Reclaimed in a different era, the Flambeau Mine asks for remembrance instead of ignorance. Its gateway welcomes visitors by proclaiming that this is the “Reclaimed Flambeau Mine.” And while many remnants of mining have been cleared away, visible clues still mark the land’s history. Most notable are the monitoring wells: thick pipes that stand in full public view, like sentinels in the midst of new wetlands. These are constant reminders that the site once housed volatile chemicals and still demands regulatory vigilance. Mining infrastructure also remains in the Flambeau Industrial Outlot, where a waste treatment plant and corporate offices still stand. Despite the transformation in the land’s shape, the Reclaimed Flambeau Mine begs visitors to remember that this wetland was once a mine.

The call for remembrance reflects the very different political atmosphere prevailing during the Flambeau Mine’s transformation. Feeling that the state ignored their opinions as it made decisions about mining, several environmental groups had come to mistrust the regulatory system by the 1990s. Through environmental advocacy campaigns, these groups successfully convinced the public that current mining regulations were inadequate and persuaded the legislature to pass the 1998 Mining Moratorium. The law forced companies to showcase mines that were successfully operated and reclaimed elsewhere before they could begin extraction in Wisconsin. This atmosphere of mistrust also shaped the Flambeau Mine’s reclamation, which proceeded in tandem with the Mining Moratorium debates. Miners and regulators both believed that the Moratorium was unnecessary, and they advocated for greater public faith in the extant regulations. With reclamation work pending, the Flambeau Mine became a logical exhibit for this perspective. By calling attention to the fact that new wetlands were old mine lands, and by staging visible reminders that scientists were monitoring environmental quality, the reclaimers could highlight the efficacy of a pre-Moratorium regulatory system. While advocates of the Moratorium eventually prevailed, corporate and DNR officials portrayed the Reclaimed Flambeau Mine as the epitome of successful reclamation and, over the next fifteen years, would use it to symbolize the efficacy of moderate regulation. In light of greater opposition to mining, reclamation could only succeed if the public remembered what mining landscapes could become, if given the chance.

A CHE group touring the reclaimed Flambeau Mine site with the industrial outlot in the background. Photo by William Cronon, 2014. Click to enlarge.

A CHE group touring the reclaimed Flambeau Mine site with the industrial outlot in the background. Photo by William Cronon, 2014. Click to enlarge.

Mines and Meanings

By comparing the shapes and messages of these two reclaimed mines with the changing politics surrounding regulation, we can see how reclamation’s goals have changed. In an era of optimism, the erasure of a mining past could affirm the public faith in regulation. Wazee Lake thus bears few reminders of its industrial history. But in an era of pessimism, public mistrust of regulation demanded more visible evidence of reclamation’s success, and so the reclaimers shined a spotlight on the Flambeau Mine’s past and current monitoring practices. Despite reclamation’s larger message that humans can realize both economic development and environmental protection, no two reclaimed mines tell the exact same story. By reading these lands alongside their histories, the shifting purpose of reclamation becomes visible, adding another layer of meaning to the evolution of environmental regulation.

Anthony Pietsch is a graduate student in UW-Madison’s Department of History and a graduate affiliate of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment. His field of study is United States environmental history in the twentieth century. Among his research interests are mining, environmental law and regulation, and technical expertise in land management. He is finalizing a master’s thesis titled: “Mining Uncertainty: Conflict and Consensus in Wisconsin’s Quest for Mining Regulation.” Contact.


Toxic Depths

Kate Wersan

Like miners, divers are explorers of barely glimpsed landscapes below the surface of the earth. At Wazee Lake in Jackson County, Wisconsin, mining and diving meet in the form of a flooded open-pit mine, now a popular deep-water scuba location. In the past five years, at least four people have died from diving accidents at this flooded mine. Here the practicalities of safe diving, and the ways in which it can go very wrong, offer an unusual analogy for the dangers of exploratory mining elsewhere in Wisconsin. At Wazee Lake, the risk of pushing biological limits surfaces conspicuously in bodies pulled from the water, and challenges us to ask whether some places—the floor of the lake, the mineral deposits under the Penokee Hills—may be too dangerous to access.

Panorama of Wazee Lake, a former Wisconsin mining landscape. Photo by William Cronon, 2014. Click to enlarge.

Panorama of Wazee Lake, a former Wisconsin mining landscape. Photo by William Cronon, 2014. Click to enlarge.

Many diving accidents, like the recent ones at Wazee Lake, are at base a problem of toxicity. Though air tanks may allow a diver to breathe at depth, the deeper the diver goes, the more each breath brings with it an intoxicating dose of pressurized gas, inducing a sort of drunken lethargy. With nearly sheer sides and few landmarks to guide your descent, I can easily imagine the way Wazee might trick—lull, seduce—even the most experienced divers into ignoring the technologies intended to make them aware of their limits. Worse, even as you are poisoning yourself, it’s surprisingly difficult to recognize those signs, since the symptoms of nitrogen narcosis include poor judgment and fuzzy thinking. With one hundred feet of visibility and few landmarks for orientation, the lure of descending might be hard to resist. Put another way, divers sometimes fight the knowledge, provided by either depth gauges or common sense, that some places, though visible, are beyond reach.

For some, deep-diving isn’t simply an amateur accident but a personal goal, a physical or technical challenge, and a thrill. Suspended eighty feet beneath the surface, the bottom more than two hundred feet below, it can be easy to fall in thrall of the sense that there is something to be gained by exploring deeper into the Lake.

On a larger scale, the commercial appeal of exploratory mining has more material ends but, I think, operates with the same sense of imprecise compulsion: there is something here, we’re not sure how much, but it seems to be too important to pass over, despite the potential risk. The danger of exploring for ore in the Gogebic range of Northern Wisconsin is precisely this: that the consequences of drilling could spread to the surrounding ecosystem, poisoning rivers and forests with heavy metals leached into ground and surface water as the machines reach ever deeper into the earth.

An airtank and breathing hoses, technologies that both enable and potentially endanger. In deep water pressurized air can push gas bubbles into a diver’s blood, leading to a state of intoxication. Photo by Nathan Barker, 2013. Click to enlarge.

An airtank and breathing hoses, technologies that both enable and potentially endanger. In deep water pressurized air can push gas bubbles into a diver’s blood, leading to a state of intoxication. Photo by Nathan Barker, 2013. Click to enlarge.

Hanging too long over the visible but unreachable lake bottom, misjudging an ascent, or failing to monitor tank gauges—almost every accident at Wazee Lake can be an appropriate metaphor for the possible dangers of mining in Wisconsin. The risk in diving is not simply drowning—it’s also poisoning. And it is when toxicity finally becomes self-evident to a diver that it has already passed beyond safe limits—perhaps beyond saving.

Of course the metaphor begins to break down at a certain level. The risks I might choose to expose myself to, diving for instance in Wazee Lake, I am not inviting anyone else to share. If I poison myself, descending too deep or ascending to quickly, the biological system I’m endangering is also my own. Not so with mining, where the risk of toxicity falls upon shared resources and entire communities.

Where the two practices meet, in flooded mine pits like Wazee Lake, diving and mining reveal a necessary lesson about limits and temptation. The depths always beckon, but half of their appeal is that, though visible, they may be beyond reach.

Kate Wersan is a graduate student in the UW-Madison Department of History where she studies early American environmental history and cultural history. Within those fields, she is most interested in microhistories of time-consciousness, land use, and agriculture. Contact.


Mining Democracy

John Suval

What can current debates over mining in Wisconsin tell us about democracy? How do democratic societies balance individual rights and what the framers of the U.S. Constitution called the “public good”?

James Madison and fellow framers faced a daunting puzzle. On the one hand they sought to create a stable society based upon government “of the people.” On the other, they understood that people tend to be motivated by self-interest, making them prone to form factions with others driven by similar interests, be they economic, political, religious, or whatever else. How, then, to establish safeguards to prevent any faction—particularly one comprising a majority—from becoming “overbearing” and trampling the rights of other citizens to life, liberty, and property?

An important part of the answer, for Madison and colleagues, was establishing a republican form of government in which citizens would elect lawmakers rather than rule directly as in a “pure democracy.” Ideally they would elect statesmen “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” That, of course, was a tall order, necessitating additional protections, including the separation of powers into legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and the design of a federal system in which power was divided between the federal government and the states. The constitutions of individual states, including Wisconsin, share many of the same underlying principles and structures outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

An anti-mine message at Penokee Overlook in Ashland County, WI. Photo by John Suval, 2014. Click to enlarge.

An anti-mine message at Penokee Overlook in Ashland County, WI. Photo by John Suval, 2014. Click to enlarge.

The controversy over the planned Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) iron ore mine in Wisconsin’s Ashland and Iron counties offers a window through which to observe how these principles and structures operate in a present-day context marked by clashing views over individual rights and the public good. The proposed $1.5 billion mine has sparked debate between proponents who say it will invigorate the economy, and opponents who argue it will damage human health, aquatic ecosystems, local economies, and the lifeways of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

In 2013, Wisconsin legislators passed—and Governor Scott Walker signed—a mining law that opened the way for GTAC to begin permitting processes for what could become the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine. The law passed along party lines, with all Republicans but one in support and all Democrats against. Critics contend that the law guts environmental regulations, oversight, and public input at the bidding of Gogebic Taconite, which, according to reports, helped draft the legislation. The bill’s sponsors, including Senator Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, counter that they are simply cutting red tape to help create jobs that many of their constituents want, without sacrificing public health or the environment.

Does the mining law advance the public good? Does it express citizens’ will? Do mine proponents constitute an “overbearing” faction that poses a threat to members of the community concerned about impacts on their health, property, and the region’s overall quality of life? What recourse do these concerned individuals have?

Observers anticipate a flood of lawsuits seeking to block the proposed mine, shifting the action to the courts—one example of how separation of powers could come to bear on this case. The federal system of interacting state and national authorities will come into play as well. While the new mining law limits the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to 420 days to decide whether to grant a permit, the federal Army Corps of Engineers, which also must approve permits, does not have to adhere to that timeline, potentially extending the review process. Local counties, meanwhile, have regulatory regimes of their own, raising the possibility of additional hurdles. For their parts, Bad River Chippewa leaders have said they could invoke their authority to set water-quality standards on their reservation as a way to fight the mine.

In the meantime, mine opponents and proponents alike are seeking to win the battle for public opinion, staging protests and voicing their views in the media. Ultimately, as the framers prescribed, voters will have a chance to weigh in, casting their ballots for politicians they believe best represent their interests and share their vision of the public good.

John Suval is a doctoral student specializing in nineteenth-century U.S. political and environmental history. His research focuses on public lands and the nature of democracy. For his dissertation, he is exploring how frontier squatting influenced U.S. political culture, imperial expansion, and conflicts leading up to the Civil War. Prior to graduate school, John worked as a newspaper reporter and media producer in Texas, Mexico, and Washington, D.C. Contact.

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