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Some raise concerns as exploratory drilling for gold deposits is considered in Marathon County

WAOW Television

A Canadian metal exploration drilling company is confident plans to drill looking for gold deposits in parts of north central Wisconsin will move forward.

However, the Department of Natural Resources requested more information to try and rule out potential environmental impacts and consequences of mining.

Meanwhile, concerns are growing for activists who believe this project would have long-lasting consequences.

"Anybody who has property in this region should be really concerned," said Ron James, who is speaking out against the proposed project.

"Mining companies used to have to prove beyond a shadow of doubt they wouldn't pollute," said Nancy Stencil, who also opposes the mining project. "Right now, we're at the drilling phase and that's where we want to see it stop."

Green Light Metals submitted two applications to the Dept. of Natural Resources on Oct 7.

One of the sites for the exploratory drilling program would take place on private land off Gold Dust and Thornapple Creek roads called 'The Reef Deposit.'

"The amount of gold that will be used in the manufacturing of these clean energy technologies, like electric vehicles, batteries, windmills... demand including all metals is going to increase over the next 20 years," said Dan Colton, President of Green Light Metals.

"If the exploration shows there is economic amounts of gold out there, at that point you begin designing a mine," Colton said.

Raising public awareness

Activists like James and Stencil have kept a close eye on the project, spreading public awareness and taking their concerns about mineral extraction to the state and Marathon County regulators.

"Everybody wrote in a lot of questions, and we made it known we were watching," Stencil said. "The DNR has stepped up to the plate... and asked for questions to be answered."

"Once we respond to their requests in writing I would think we would pretty quickly come to a final decision, from the DNR," Colton said. "I find it very unlikely the DNR will halt the application."

Nearby creek, drinking water part of resident concerns

An unknown creek that runs near the proposed drilling will serve as a water source for the operations, which is part of what is drawing concern.

"That groundwater is right next to Mole Brook Creek, which goes into the Eau Claire River, which feeds into Lake Wausau and right into the Wisconsin River," Stencil said. "It's also right next to the Ice Age Trail and it's a heavily tourist area. Why would you want to destroy the area here?"

James added: "The 200 chemicals the mineral company is allowed to choose from have very toxic warnings on their safety data sheets. They have some level of toxicity to fish, aquatic systems and may cause cancer...then they have to fill these 99 holes with cement up to 650 feet, they're going to need 220,000 pounds of cement, seven full cement trucks worth, and they (Green Light Metals) are talking about mixing this on site in the winter?"

James and Stencil believe 'toxic components' will show up in groundwater and that there will be long-term consequences to wells.

"If you can't drink from your tap water, your property value isn't going to be high, and you may have trouble getting rid of your house," James said. "Shouldn't the community insist that the drilling fluids used is tested for PFAS, so we're not just standing back and watching another PFAS contamination crisis develop."

But for a few property owners, the project presents a 'golden ticket', as they could receive royalties from Green Light Metals.

"We've been leased to different companies since the 80s, but I don't believe there's any environmental problems at all," Jerald Juedes said. "You know, there are so many regulations they have to live by nowadays...it's a little 4-inch hole for crying out loud, gets filled with cement when they're done."

'This is done around the world regularly'

The DNR said they have asked Green Light for more information including the drilling fluids, but it's unclear if the DNR would test for PFAS, as they wouldn't specify who would test the products.

"If there are concerns regarding issues that are beyond our authority... we can't enforce those," said Ben Callan, Integration Services Chief with the DNR. "We have to stick with what our jurisdiction and authorities are and we're trying to assess what the impacts could be."

“This is done around the world regularly, this is not rocket science," Colton said. "I don't know of any instances where we have drilling fluid contaminating peoples drinking water. The DNR is looking into that, we will only use DNR approved drilling fluids.”

Colton said all activities including filling the holes will be done on frozen conditions and disputed all claims of environmental harm.

"With respect to exploration drilling, no there will be no impact to resources to the effect you are suggesting, the soils are saturated at surface" he said. "I don’t want to speak to mining because we’re not even thinking about a mine right now, but I wouldn’t be in the industry if I thought mining couldn't be done in a way that was protective of the environment.”

Colton expects the drilling to last around two months.

“For someone who fears that is a real threat, I ask they explain to me the mechanism for how a drilling program creates a situation where you have the release of enough fluid to move over a mile to contaminate that river, I just don't see it happening, the risks are zero."

Future of Wisconsin's resources jeopardized?

But Stencil and James are standing firm on their stances with worries that the future of Wisconsin's most loved resources will be jeopardized.

"You've got a class 1 trout stream and they're going to be drilling right next to it. I want clean water for my children I want clean water for my grandchildren. "Water is life...you can't live without it," Stencil said.

Meanwhile James suggested that Wisconsin follow Colorado's example and ban all drilling fluids that could potentially contain PFAS.

Now back in September 2022, a resolution was taken to the Environmental Resouces Commitee of the Marathon County Board.

The Wausau area group 'Protect the Eau Claire River' submitted nearly 500 signatures on a petition that went along with a resolution drafted by several environmental groups. They asked for more local control to address concerns that may arise related to metallic exploration.

Stencil said the group was shot down by the county board at their Oct 4. meeting.

"Anytime the county would go and ask for money for a project in Marathon County...They fear they would be shot down if they said they were in favor of the resolution," Stencil said. "I don't believe our county government should have to fear the state legislator, and there just appears to be no way around this. With the upturning of Act 134...we've lost all local control."

The DNR has 15 business days to issue a decision once they receive Green Light Metals written answers to their questions and there could also be more permits involved.

"We always have concerns regarding potential impacts to resources and how we respond to or address those concerns is based on our authority, so we're reviewing the proposal based on our authority," said Callan. "If the project moves forward, we will follow through regarding monitoring to ensure compliance with conditions and criteria."

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