Mining Spectre Haunts Northern Wisconsin

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Mining Spectre Haunts Northern Wisconsin

by Al Gedicks

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 10, No. 1, January/February 1978, p. 29–31

Like an army of thieves under cover of darkness, the multinational natural resource corporations are buying and bullying their way to obtain mineral rights in a mad scramble to control what may be the world’s richest and most extensive deposits of copper, nickel, lead, chromium, zinc and uranium in northern Wisconsin. The discovery of the world’s fifth largest deposit of copper and zinc in Forest County by the Rockefeller-controlled Exxon Corp., is only the latest episode of a long story whose final chapters have yet to be written. 

There are at present over 40 major energy and minerals corporations which are conducting serious exploration efforts in northern Wisconsin, northeastern Minnesota and the upper peninsula of Michigan. There is further reason to believe that the valuable mineral resources found along the Great Lakes probably extend out under the lakes as well. The lake beds hold potential supplies of copper, sand, gravel, manganese nodules, natural gas and oil. From the point of view of the companies, these geologic formations may contain the answers to any possible or projected shortages of critical minerals and fuels in the near future. From the point of view of the Wisconsin public, the control of these deposits by a handful of powerful multinational corporations may spell the end of agriculture, dairy farming, forestry and tourism in northern Wisconsin. 

The potential scope and consequences of mining development in the Great Lakes region has been one of the best-kept secrets of the mining industry. Since the discovery of a copper-sulfide deposit by Kennecott in Rusk County in 1968 there has been a conspiracy of silence to prevent the public from learning about some of the far-reaching implications of large scale mining development in northern Wisconsin. This silence was partially broken in 1972 when John Rigg of the Metal Mining Division of the U.S. Interior Department predicted that northern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota would be the largest copper-nickel producing regions on the North American continent. Yet, up until the Exxon discovery in Forest County, Kennecott Copper Corporation had been claiming that its copper find in Rusk County was a small isolated deposit. Since the Kennecott discovery in Rusk County there have been four other corporations which have made public their intention to proceed with plans for mining development in Wisconsin: Noranda’s exploration subsidiary in Oneida County, Exxon’s subsidiary in Forest County, International Nickel’s subsidiary in Rusk County and Ray Rock Mines in Oneida County. 

Mt. Journal/cpf

The area in which intensive exploration is taking place in northern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota is an extension of the Canadian Shield—a massive formation of Precambrian rock which has yielded millions of tons of metallic ores in Canada. The lengths to which the multinational natural resource corporations are willing to go to conceal their operations from the public is well illustrated by the case of Scintrex, Ltd., which had been searching for minerals by plane in an area east of Marshfield in 1972. Scintrex, Ltd., is a Toronto mineral exploration firm but the identity of its client remains a secret. Industry observers have speculated that the firm sponsoring the search for minerals is probably located in the United States since federal law prohibits foreign interests from claiming mineral rights on U.S. lands. 

This veil of secrecy over the extent of the explorations going on up north, the value of the mineral deposits, and the plans of the corporations for the region, puts the public at an extreme disadvantage. In the first place, individual landowners who are approached by the companies to sign away mineral rights have no idea what the real value of their land may be while the companies know full well the value of the minerals they are bargaining for. In the second place, the state is at a disadvantage in assessing taxes and royalties because the value and extent of the mineral deposits is considered the “privileged” information of the private mining corporations. Finally, the state is at a disadvantage in terms of planning for the economic and environmental impact of mining development because each corporation is only required to submit a site-specific impact statement rather than a regional impact statement. 

Nor can we expect that the attempt to raise the issue of the public interest in regard to mining development will become any easier as more and more corporations announce their plans to dig up the northern two-thirds of the state and sell it off pound by pound as the steel companies did in Iron and Ashland Counties. During the era of Wisconsin’s greatest mining development (1890-1940), the iron ores of Wisconsin fed the steel furnaces in Gary, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh and provided fantastic profits for the steel company stockholders. 

But very little of this enormous wealth remained in the iron-mining areas of northern Wisconsin. When the steel companies were able to exploit higher grades of ore at lower labor costs in Venezuela and Brazil in the early 1950’s, they shut down their Wisconsin mining operations and transferred production to South America. This unilateral corporate decision threw the iron-mining counties of Iron and Ashland into a severe economic depression which afflicts the area today. These mining areas were “one-industry towns”—totally dependent upon mining for employment, taxes and the service industries which grew up around the mines. When the mines closed down, the area experienced a huge out-migration of the economically active population, a corresponding increase in the welfare demands of the old, the sick and the disabled, and the loss of a major tax base to support these social readjustment costs. 

While Kennecott talks about creating a few new jobs for a 10 or 20 year period, they refuse to address themselves to long-term environmental pollution by the copper mine.

As long as the major decisions about production, investment and environmental responsibility remain in the hands of the multinational natural resource corporations there is no reason to believe that northern Wisconsin will not become another resource colony for the corporations. The major difference this time is that the vast scope of mining development creates the possibility for a regional environmental disaster whose long term effects are irreversible. Throughout the history of copper mining, environmental destruction has been closely associated with extraction and refinement of the ores, expecially when the deposits contained sulfides, as is the case in northern Wisconsin. If the multinational natural resource corporations proceed with copper and other types of mining in northern Wisconsin, millions of tons of water will be used in processing and concentrating the ores. Run-off and seepage from tailings ponds, waste dumps, ore dumps and stockpile areas often are heavily contaminated with pollutants.

Studies that have been done in Canada indicate that 20 to 25 chemicals are present in trace quantities in the effluent of most copper sulfide mining operations, and are capable of killing aquatic life. Many of these chemicals, including copper itself, are poisonous to fish at part per-billion levels. The conclusion of a recent study on water quality and copper-nickel mining by the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group was that “in an area with closely connected waterways, such as northeastern Minnesota, toxic discharges into one lake or river can quickly poison an entire watershed.” 

For large parts of the northern Wisconsin economy, which depend upon agriculture, dairy farming, forestry and tourism, the environmental pollution associated with copper mining could destroy the ecological basis for these industries. This is precisely the fear that has already been raised by the research done by the Rusk County Citizens Action Group regarding the proposed Kennecott mine in Ladysmith. While Kennecott talks about creating a few jobs for a 10 or 20 year period, they refuse to address themselves to long term environmental pollution of the copper mine. It is only when these long-term consequences of mining development have been addressed and satisfactory answers given that any responsible decisions about the future of northern Wisconsin mining can be made. If you would like to become involved in educational and organizational activities regarding mining in Wisconsin, write the Environmental Agenda Task Force on Mining at the Wisconsin Citizens Environmental Council, Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707 or call Cindy Sampson at 266-7714. More information on mining in northern Wisconsin can be obtained by writing AI Gedicks, Center for Alternative Mining Development Policy, 731 State St., Madison, WI 53703


In September (1977) the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources dismissed Kennecott’s request for permits to start a copper mine south of Ladysmith in northern Wisconsin. The decision of the Department of Natural Resources came after local citizens and small farmers mobilized public opinion in Rusk County against the mine. The defeat of Kennecott’s mining plans for northern Wisconsin has not deterred other companies from continuing to explore and stake out new deposits. Exxon, for instance, has announced plans to develop the world’s largest deposit of copper and zinc in nearby Forest County. Exxon has even hired Kennecott’s chief geologist to insure that Exxon does not permit the mobilization of public opinion in Forest County that defeated Kennecott in nearby Rusk County. 

AI Gedicks is a Wisconsin journalist and film producer who has written extensively on mining in the Great Lakes area. His work has appeared in the Madison Capital Times, the Nation, and North Country Anvil. He contributed a chapter on mining to Natural Resources and National Welfare: The Case of Copper (Praeger, 1975). 

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