Crandon mine

Crandon mine

The proposed Crandon mine in Northeastern Wisconsin, USA near the town of Crandon and the Mole Lake Ojibwe Reservation in Forest County was the site of multi-decade political and regulatory battle between environmentalists, American Indian tribes, sportfishing groups, and the State of Wisconsin and multiple large mining corporations. The purchase of the mine site in 2003 by the Sokaogon Ojibwe and Forest County Potawatomi marked a major victory for the tribes and environmental activists, and raised questions over the future of mining, economics, and tribal power in Wisconsin.



The Crandon site was only one of several deposits of metallic-sulfide ore found in Northern Wisconsin during the 1970s though its estimated 60 million tons of copper, zinc and other metallic sulfides was thought to hold the highest possibility for profit. Three sites in all were proposed for digging. From the outset, environmental groups opposed the process of extracting precious metals from the sulfide ore, which if not properly handled may create sulfuric acid as a waste product. Each of the three sites was sufficiently close to an Ojibwe reservation to attract tribal opposition as well. Proposals by Kennecott Minerals Company to mine the first site, near Ladysmith, Wisconsin were initially rejected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. However, after Kennecott's buyout by Rio Tinto zinc, and the governorship of the pro-business Tommy Thompson, the mine was allowed to open in face of the opposition and operated from 1993 to 1997. However, a similar proposal by the Canadian company Noranda to mine a deposit in Oneida County failed in part because of heavy opposition by the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe. These smaller battles set the stage and prepared both sides in the larger fight over the Crandon proposal.

Potential Opposition

Although the mine was known by the name of the nearby town of Crandon, the "Mole Lake mine" may have been a more appropriate description since the site lay adjacent to the Mole Lake reservation of the Sokaogon Ojibwe. The Ojibwe feared what consequences runoff from the sulfide mine could have on the reservation's Rice Lake, a site of immense cultural and historical importance to the band. Five miles east, the Forest County Potawatomi had similar fears that the wind would carry air pollution from the mine to their reservation. Furthermore, its location on a tributary of the Wolf River meant that any liquid waste escaping the mine threatened one of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers[1] in the state. In addition to white residents all along the bank, the Menominee and Mohican (Stockbridge-Munsee) reservations lay downstream and brought more Indigenous people concerns to the table.[2]


The first proposal to mine the Crandon site was put forth by Exxon in the late seventies. The Mole Lake community opposed it from the start, which put them at odds with many people in nearby towns who hoped mining jobs would provide steady employment for the depressed region. By 1986, with the Ojibwe still a few years away from their conflict over treaty rights during the Walleye Wars, and lacking support outside the reservation, the mine probably would have happened, but Exxon withdrew its permit application due to low world mineral prices.[3] By the time they returned in 1994, the Sokaogon band was waiting.

In the late eighties and nineties, clashes over spearfishing and the experience of other mining conflicts resulted in a broad-based coalition prepared to use treaty rights to stop the mine at any cost. The Ojibwe joined with the Potawatomi, Menominee, and Mohican to lobby against the mine in the capital at Madison and in the courts. In doing so, they secured numerous protective designations for the Wolf, which made the standards for pollution harsher on a mine. In addition, the spearing conflict and an educational campaign undertaken by the four tribes to raise awareness of Native issues, had the effect of showing white residents the value of the treaty rights possessed by the Indians.[4] As a result, the tribes and Wolf River locals formed a much more unified opposition than had been seen in the other conflicts. Coming off a 1996 victory in the Bad River Train Blockade, this coalition's greatest success came when Governor, Tommy Thompson was forced by political pressure to sign a mining moratorium into state law in 1998. The moratorium mandated that mining companies prove similar mines had existed safely before the state would grant permits.[5]


In a mid-nineties lawsuit finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, the right of Indian nations to have "Treatment as a State" status on applicable issues was interpreted to apply to setting and enforcing clean air and water standards. This meant the tribes could set their own, potentially far more restrictive limits than those of the Department of Natural Resources essentially meaning a potential Crandon mine would have to be completely free of pollution[6] This was the end of the economic viability of the project, and on October 28, 2003, the Mole Lake Ojibwe and Forest County Potawatomi used $16.5 million dollars worth of casino revenue to purchase the mine site and Nicolet Minerals Inc. which was its latest owner. Neither tribe has plans to develop the site in the foreseeable future.[7] The death of the Crandon project has disappointed many in the area who had hoped it would bring an economic boost to the depressed region instead of what a former Crandon project manager referred to as the "end of mining in the state."[8] Mining publications consistently rank the anti-mining climate in Wisconsin as the most hostile to the industry.[9]


  1. ^ List of National Wild and Scenic Rivers
  2. ^ Grossman Unlikely Alliances pages 375-379
  3. ^ Gedicks 59-76; 1993
  4. ^ Grossman 381; 2002
  5. ^ Grossman 405; 2002
  6. ^ Bergquist 1A; 2002
  7. ^ Rinard and Jones 1A; 2003
  8. ^ Dale Alberts qtd. in Imrie; 2003
  9. ^ Midwest Treaty Network; 2003


  • Bergquist, Lee. 2002. "Decision puts water quality in tribe's hands; Sokaogon can set standard near mine." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 6/4/2002, 1A.
  • Gedicks, Al. 1993. The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations. Boston: South End Press.
  • Grossman, Zoltan C.. 2002. Unlikely Alliances: Treaty Conflicts and Environmental Cooperation Between Native American and Rural White Communities. PhD dissertation: University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  • Imrie, Robert. 2003. "Former mining project manager says Crandon mine is dead." Associated Press, 8/29/2003. Viewed 7/30/04 on database LexisNexis.
  • Loew, Patty. 2001. Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal." Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
  • Meersman, Tom. 1996. "A conflict of environment and economics; Chemical shipments spur safety concerns and a tribal protest." Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Mn.), 8/3/1996, 3B.
  • Midwest Treaty Network. 2003. "International Mining Journals Assess Wisconsin Opposition." Web site viewed on July 30, 2004.
  • Rinard, Amy and Meg Jones. 2003. "Tribes' purchase ends Crandon mine tussle; Mining company says 'hostile political climate' doomed project." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 10/29/2003, 1A.
  • Seely, Ron. 2003. "Tribes Will Pay $16.5 million for Mine Site: The Sokaogon Mole Lake Chippewa and Forest County Potawatomi are Elated by the Deal." Wisconsin State Journal, 10/29/2003, A1.

Further reading

  • Michael O'Brien, 2008, Exxon and the Crandon Mine Controversy, Badger Books LLC, ISBN 978-1932542370.

See also

External links

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