Native Groups, Private Citizens Among Those Concerned About Possible Mining Near Wolf River

Mar 24, 2020

Water Walkers and other concerned citizens walk to a site of the proposed exploratory drilling.
Credit Jim Skibo

Badger Minerals, a subsidiary of a Canadian mining company, wants to begin exploratory testing in eastern Oneida County near the headwaters of the Wolf River. The area sits on an ancient volcanic deposit that often contains high concentrations of zinc, lead, copper, gold, and silver. Recently, a group met in Mole Lake, which sits a few miles from the site, to express their concerns over the proposed mining.

Forest County Potawatomi Tribal Member Nick Shepard began his speech by saying, “I’m here today in support of protecting the Wolf River, again.”

He was one of six or so speakers at a recent meeting of tribal members and concerned citizens who are opposed to the prospect of a metallic sulfide mine. Some in the group have been fighting against mining in the area since the 1970s. The new round of proposed drilling by Badger Minerals could take place after the streamlining of the permitting process through the passage of a 2017 law. The plan still needs approval from the state and county before any mining could take place.

The Wolf River near the site of the proposed drilling.
Credit Mary Jo Peters

The concerns expressed by the speakers and attendees centered on how mining could pollute ground water and the Wolf River, which flows through the length of Langlade County after leaving Oneida County.

The major concern for Langlade County Board member Bill Livingston is that something will go wrong with the mining process and pollute the Wolf River watershed.

According to White Lake resident Ron James this is a realistic concern as he stated that every metallic sulfide mine in the United States has resulted in some significant environmental consequence. He noted that once the metallic sulfides are brought to the surface, which are zinc, copper, gold and silver, they expose sulfuric acid to the environment. This exposure mobilizes mercury, arsenic and lead, which then enters our waterways.

Badger Minerals outreach spokesperson Tracy Benzel declined an interview in February, but addressed this concern in written form to WXPR. He stated that the company “applied for and received an exploration license from the DNR,” and that “Wisconsin’s environmental laws are some of the strictest in the country.” He also noted that a “metallic mine developed in Wisconsin would be an economic boon to Wisconsin citizens.”

Environmental Director of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community in Mole Lake Tina Van Zile argues that the potential harm to the environment, even if all DNR regulations are followed, far outweighs the economic gains from some local jobs. She takes the long view in which a mine would only be here for a short time, and then likely leave a polluted environment for them and their families.

Van Zile also states that the goal is not only stop this mine but to repeal current legislation that made the process easier for mineral exploration. This type of mining, according to many speakers, should not be permitted in states like Wisconsin that have such rich water resources.

The Wolf River, one of only two rivers in Wisconsin designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, flows near the proposed drilling site. It then passes through Langlade County, the Menominee Nation and eventually empties into Lake Michigan. People who live down river, like Mary Jo Peters, often had a lifelong relationship to the river. She grew up along the river and even today she takes daily walks along its banks to enjoy its beauty.

Her husband, Patrick, also notes the recreational and hospitality jobs that come directly from our clean water. He stated that most of the restaurants, bars, motels, outfitters, marinas and other businesses depend on people coming to the region to enjoy the clean lakes, rivers and streams.

The people of the Menominee Nation also benefit economically from the river but to them it is much more.  According to Menominee Tribal member and Water Walker, Jwin Zillier, they view the river as sacred.

Water Walkers, a group that started here in the Midwest, are tribal members who have walked thousands 

Prayer tie and tobacco offering at a site of proposed drilling.
Credit Mary Jo Peters

of miles across the country to raise awareness about the importance of water. At the conclusion of the speeches at the event, Zillier and other Water Walkers led the group on a many mile hike to one of the sites of the exploratory drilling. There, they encouraged participants to tie a blue ribbon and a tobacco offering to a tree and offer a prayer for the protection of the water.

Tina Van Zile of the Sakaogon Chippewa Community summed up the feeling of those who participated in the walk.

“Our ancestors lived in a way so we would have access to things for our way of life,” she said. “Are we going to be able to say that we left it the same way for future generations?”