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Oneida Co. Approves Mining-Related Drilling Near Wolf River; Full DNR Approval Still Required

Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications

On Wednesday, a mining exploration company got a step closer to drilling into the earth near the Wolf River in Oneida County.

The county’s Planning and Development committee unanimously approved a permit for Badger Minerals to drill up to ten exploration holes on a private plot of land.

The company wants to find out if the area could be a good place for a metallic mine.

But, if it wasn’t clear before, public backlash demonstrated there’s plenty of opposition in the Northwoods.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The proposed drilling site is generally forested.

It’s the first exploratory drilling permit the county has approved under a revised zoning code on mining.

Credit Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications
The Wolf River near the proposed drilling site.

Badger Minerals, a Michigan-based subsidiary of a Canadian company, is seeking to drill ten exploration holes to an average depth of 400 feet. Some of the holes would be within a few thousand feet of the Wolf River.

If the company moves forward, it would be the first mining-related exploratory drilling in Oneida County since at least the 1980s, and the first in Wisconsin since drilling in 2012 at the Bend deposit in Taylor County. The last operating metallic mine in Wisconsin, the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, stopped hauling loads of ore in 1997.

A company called Noranda did exploratory drilling in the 1970s on the so-called Schoepke deposit and found some success, based on records that still exist.

“The public information that is out there indicates there is something down there. There has been a ‘hit’ of something,” Badger Minerals consultant Tracy Benzel told the committee Wednesday.

The deposit is part of a band of buried volcanic rock created about 1.8 billion years ago. It stretches from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to western Wisconsin and has concentrations of zinc, copper, lead, silver, and gold.

Benzel previously told WXPR any metallic mine would be an “economic boon” to Wisconsinites involved.

Even so, Oneida County’s Planning and Zoning Department got about 60 letters and emails prior to Wednesday’s meeting, most vehemently opposed to mining.

But Karl Jennich, the department director, pointed out most comments were directed at mining generally, not the Oneida County ordinance on exploration or the Badger Minerals application.

“A lot of the comments that were made were really related to if and when a mine would be developed on that parcel of that property,” he said. “I did not see any technical issues in relation to [the ordinance].”

The private land proposed for exploration is zoned General Use, and General Use allows for mining exploration. Jennrich advised the committee to approve the permit in accordance with county ordinances, and it did, unanimously, minutes later.

Credit John Coleman/GLIFWC
A graphic prepared by John Coleman of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, showing proposed drill sites and other local features, including the Wolf River.

Minutes after that, the public attending the meeting in person or by phone got the chance to speak up.

The agenda called for their voice to be heard only after the committee took its vote.

“For the public to not have had a public comment prior to a vote, I honestly am just stunned,” Pelican Lake’s Jean Roach told the committee.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
A stake in the woods on the Schoepke site. The stake is marked DB-01, which matches a notation on Badger Minerals' paperwork for one of ten proposed drill sites.

Democrat Tricia Zunker, who’s running against state Sen. Tom Tiffany for northern Wisconsin’s seat in Congress, told the committee it was making a mistake.

“There is no such thing as safe sulfide mining. Allowing this project to move forward could jeopardize our beautiful lands and the Wolf River,” Zunker said. “Indeed, the true cost of this project is infinite and irrevocable.”

Despite the location of the Sokaogon Chippewa tribe’s reservation just a few miles from the proposed drilling, Tribal Environmental Director said she had yet to hear from Oneida County.

“I’m a little appalled myself that the tribes have been here before anyone else, and still, we don’t get the courtesy of a phone call,” Van Zile said.

Even with Oneida County’s permitting approval, Badger Minerals still needs sign-off from the DNR to begin exploratory drilling. The company has a state license for the activity, but also may need certain stormwater and erosion control permitting, according to the DNR’s Ben Callan. As of Monday, that permitting had not been finished.

The DNR has already granted Badger Minerals an exemption with regard to waterway usage, allowing it to draw water from nearby Stockley Creek for use on the project.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Stockley Creek, as seen in February 2020. The DNR has approved the creek as a water source for Badger Minerals' drilling operations.

Additionally, a DNR review found the company was not required to take any actions to mitigate potential impacts to endangered species in the area. However, it did recommend two actions related to endangered species, including bald eagles.

“While the known Bald Eagle nests are not within or adjacent to the project site, the southern project area is within [one] mile of Bald Eagle nests and suitable habitat for the eagle may be present,” the DNR’s Anna Rossler wrote to the company. “If an eagle nest is present and active, then human activity should be avoided from January 15 – July 30 within 660ft of the nest.”

Rossler also wrote “[s]uitable nesting habitat…may be present” for a different, unnamed endangered bird.

As Planning and Development Committee Chair Scott Holewinski said on Wednesday, if the plan goes forward, this isn’t mining.

Credit Ann Kipper
Ann Kipper, the DNR Deputy Division Administrator for External Services and a mining expert.

It’s exploration.

“Exploration drilling is very, very early on in the process and does not mean that there will be a mine. In fact, we have had only modern-day mine in Wisconsin,” agreed Ann Kipper, a DNR mining expert, in a February interview.

But the ten drill holes approved by Oneida County could lead to next steps.

Benzel, the company consultant, told the committee if things look interesting, there will be dozens and dozens of holes drilled down the road.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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