September 25, 2007

In May of 1976 Exxon USA announced its discovery of one of the world's largest and richest deposits of copper-zinc in northern Wisconsin. The corporation plans to spend approximately $400 million to bring the mines into production, and by the mid-1980s, according to the Engineering and Mining Journal, "Exxon may become a significant producer of copper and zinc at facilities based on the massive sulphide deposit ... at Crandon, Wisconsin." The financial and political stakes involved in Exxon's venture into copper are enormous. For years, oil giants have been acquiring substantial reserves in alternative energy sources such as coal and uranium. (See "Oil and Copper: The New Alchemists," NACLA Report on the Americas, July-Aug. 1978, pgs. 42-43.) Copper companies, suffering from depressed metal prices and increased operating costs, have presented the cash-laden oil companies with golden opportunities for diversification. Not only are the copper firms selling cheap, but according to Barron's, they represent a non-energy hedge against the possibility of future anti-trust action. In Chile, the implications of Exxon's copper investments have already been seen. (See "Chile: Exxon et. al.," NACLA Report on the Americas, May-June 1978, pgs. 41-42.) Exxon's 1978 purchase of two copper mines for $107 million represents a vote of confidence for one of the most brutal military regimes in Latin America and encourages the Junta to maintain its repressive policies. Exxon's diversification plan is likely to have adverse effects upon the people of Wisconsin as well. INDIAN LIFE IMPERILED Excavation of the Crandon mine poses a direct threat to the environment and culture of the Mole Lake Sokaogun band of the Chippewa Indians, whose reservation is less than a mile away from the Exxon site. Chippewa tribal leaders fear that if Exxon goes ahead with its copper-zinc mining operation, the air, water and land of their tiny, 1900-acre reservation will become universally degraded. They project that runoff and seepage from the mine may contaminate nearby Rice Lake and thereby destroy the annual wild rice harvest. In addition to the possible destruction of their staple food, the Chippewa fear that the influx of large numbers of non- Indians seeking work in the mines would destroy the social fabric of tribal culture. In October of 1976, therefore, tribal members rejected Exxon's offer of $20,000 for the mineral rights to their reservation and reasserted their claim to the 12-square-mile tract surrounding the reservation, which encompasses Exxon's drilling site. Other tribes would also be 40 adversely affected by the mines. According to a report done for the Menominee tribe, whose reservation lies on the Wolf River just south of the Exxon deposit: "Groundwater contamination will be especially hard to detect and contain. The residual effects may not, in some cases, express themselves until years after the development has occurred." If Exxon's plan to contain the tailings (waste rock) fails, pollutants "could ruin life in the Wolf River." But the outcome of the confrontation between Exxon and the Chippewa Indians will have long- term consequences that extend far beyond the disputed mining site. At least forty multinational mining and energy corporations have leased lands in northern Wisconsin in search of "super- gene enriched" deposits of copper, nickel, lead, chromite, zinc, vanadium and uranium. According to the Assistant State Geologist, Wisconsin is a "hot prospect" for uranimum exploration. With the price of U-308 (a refined form of uranium called "yellow cake") going from $6.50/Ib. in 1978 to $50/lb. today, the pressure from Exxon and other companies on the state to develop these uranium deposits will be overwhelming. If in fact uranium deposits are mixed with the copper-zinc deposits identified by Exxon, those who work in the mines and whose jobs depend upon the viability of the natural environment would face the most serious hazards. Clearly, this is not a case of one single mine, but as Exxon geologist Edwarde May has acknowledged, involves the development of "a new mining district [that will] place Wisconsin in a position of being a significant supplier of minerals." The state of Wisconsin, in anticipation of this mineral boom, has sought to create a favorable investment climate for these companies. The Dept. of Natural Resources and the Geological and Natural History Survey have been directed to submit "a comprehensive state program of mineral resources zoning and financial incentives for the purpose of dis- couraging those uses of lands which tend to preclude the mining of minerals lying beneath." One of the most active agencies promoting mining development is the Upper Great Lakes Regional Commission, a state-federal partnership. (It was originally established to deal with the economic and environmental devastation left after the steel companies shut down Wisconsin iron-making in favor of cheaper sources of ore in Venezuela and Brazil.) The multinational mining companies also directly benefit from studies conducted by various programs of the University of Wisconsin. OPPOSITION GROWING But opposition to Exxon's proposed mine is growing as people learn more about the adverse effects of intensive mining and energy development in the region and successfully campaign against the environmental impact statements of some mining companies. In September of 1977, for example, as a result of the mobilization of public opinion by local citizens and small farmers, the Dept. of Natural Resources denied permission to Kennecott Copper Corporaton to start a copper mine south of Ladysmith in northern Wisconsin. As was evidenced in the Kennecott case, both Indian and white communities are better prepared to fight these mining companies when aware of the process of resource exploitation at home and abroad. The operations of Anaconda and Kennecott Copper Corps. in Chile and the Chilean nationalization of their holdings in 1971 are essential ingredients to the understanding of Kennecott's moves in Wisconsin. In the same way, U.S. Steel's decision to shut down Wisconsin iron mines in the 1950s is incomprehensible apart from the role of Brazil and Venezuela in that company's global plan. The defeat of Kennecott's mining plans has reinforced Exxon's determination to pursue the development of the Crandon copper- zinc deposit regardless of its impact on the surrounding communities. The company has even hired Kennecott's chief geologist to insure that mining interests are not defeated a second time. A successful campaign against Exxon will depend not only on an understanding of its global diversification strategy, but ultimately, on how well Indians and whites can work together to safeguard their common interests in the air, water and subsoils of northern Wisconsin.

Tags: Exxon, copper, Wisconsin, mining impact, indigenous rights

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