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EASTON, Wis. - Wisconsin's moratorium on gold and silver mining will be lifted as of July, so a number of counties are now looking into creating their own mining regulations.
Counties want to prevent or mitigate damage to well water and the environment, after Gov. Scott Walker decided new mines could attract business and help keep younger workers in the state.Recently, Marathon County became the first to pass an ordinance, and it's being held up as a model for others.
County Board Chairman Kurt Gibbs says officials spoke to environmental groups, mining companies, residents and legal experts to figure out what would work for all. "We tried to strike a balance between the interests of mining and the interests of the citizens of Marathon County," says Gibbs. The ordinance requires mining companies to pay a $50,000 up-front deposit, and put another $15,000 into a trust fund for every well that could potentially be affected by the company's actions. Lifting the 20 year mining ban was controversial in the Legislature, with critics pointing out that mining can't help but cause environmental damage.
As Mining Committee Chair of the Sierra Club's John Muir Chapter, Dave Blouin says the kind of mining that would occur in Marathon County would cause long-term damage, and it would be impossible for any county to draft an adequate ordinance to address the situation with only a few months before the state's moratorium lifts. Blouin says the environmental damage would far outweigh the limited economic benefit. "The state has arbitrarily decided that metallic mining developments are a good economic driver," he says. "And from our standpoint, they're anything but. The industry hasn't proved its claims that it can mine and operate safely in metallic sulfide ores."
Mining companies counter that newer technology will minimize the risks of pollution. Marathon County has been identified a potential target for mining. In 2014, a gold sulfide deposit was found in Easton near the Eau Claire River, but the company that identified it has no immediate plans to mine there.