The arrogance of bureaucratic power

Published January 1, 2002

The men and women around the basement table of the tiny northern Wisconsin town bank could be from Tom Brokaw’s best seller, The Greatest Generation, children of the Great Depression, young men and women who went to war or sacrificed from home, savers and sustainers of America’s post-war boom.

Now grown old, some are gray and bent; others doze this summer afternoon. “We told our children about it,” one intoned. “Then we told their children. If we last long enough, we may be telling their grandchildren about it.”

Copper . . . and an economic boon

The “it” is the proposed Crandon mine, an underground facility capable of bringing jobs and revenue to Wisconsin’s second poorest county. With very high unemployment, Forest County is a great place to visit, but for people seeking work, an impossible place to live.

Over 25 to 30 years, the mine would yield an estimated $1.5 billion in wages, purchases, and taxes, with a multiplier effect two to three times that. Four hundred locals would earn between $50,000 and $80,000 annually. Already, 1,200 people have applied for those jobs. They will have to wait.

The rich zinc copper deposit was discovered in 1975. Three years later, a mining notice was filed, leading to a comprehensive environmental study that concluded in 1986; but the project was put on hold for business reasons. In 1993, zinc prices went up, making the mine more economic, and permitting efforts began anew.

Initially, locals liked the prospect of 400 very high-paying jobs, but they had concerns. They worried about the water table, about water discharge, and about the iron pyrite left after extraction.

In 1998, mining officials, realizing they had to address those concerns, decided to engineer a state-of-the-art, world-class, show-piece solution. It would not be cheap, but it would work.

After $30 million, they had it: The pyrite would be mixed with cement and used to backfill the mine. An aggressive cement-grouting program would reduce water flow and, by employing reverse osmosis, would eliminate any need to discharge water off-site.

Local support is strong

Hundreds of meetings were held–in homes, schools, firehouses, community centers, and Indian casinos–to address all concerns about the mine. Soon, the signs opposing the mine, which had begun to appear here and there on barns and fence posts, all but disappeared.

In 1999, with impressive local and technical support for its approach, mining officials submitted their new proposal.

Meanwhile, in 1997, Wisconsin had adopted the nation’s most stringent anti-mining law, requiring any new mine to show evidence of two other mines that used or had used the techniques the new mine proposed to use. One must have been in operation for 10 years, the other must have been reclaimed for 10 years, both without a single notice of violation!

Mining experts said the test was impossible, but the Crandon officials met it. They pressed for issuance of their federal and state permits.

Feds, state bureaucrats drag their feet

But former President Bill Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dragged its feet, raising one impediment after another. After two EPA officials were indicted for altering public records and lying under oath, it was discovered EPA had an illegal “strategy to stop the Crandon Mine.”

Meanwhile, back in Madison–despite great and growing local support for the mine, from former Governor Tommy Thompson down through the state senator, state assemblyman, and county, township, and school officials–the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources refused to act. Untouchable because of their civil service status, whenever asked about the permit, the bureaucrats simply say, “Maybe next year.”

Next year may be too late for some of the men and women in Forest County. They have seen a lot, but never anything like this. People who went through depression and war, they simply do not understand how bureaucrats could deny their children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren the ability to live where they were born and to put food on the table.

William Perry Pendley is president and chief legal officer of the Mountain States Legal Foundation.