Early exploration began in 1968 on the Flambeau site to identify a copper-gold deposit.
In 1974, Kennecott Minerals Company (KMC) started the permitting process under the newly adopted Metallic Mining Reclamation Act. The original project proposal included two phases: 11 years of open pit mining followed by 11 years of underground mining. The plan also included concentration of the ore on site, with tailings located two miles from the project. At the end of operation the pit would be filled with water and the surrounding area re-vegetated.
Concerns about the mine’s impact on the nearby Flambeau River spurred community protests and the creation of the Rusk County Citizens Action Group. Rusk County banned sulfide mining and the project’s permitting process was put on hold for 10 years.
In 1986, Flambeau Mining Company, a subsidiary of Kennecott, re-evaluated the project under new conditions. Under the revised plan, the mining operation would include an open pit only, eliminating underground mining, on-site ore concentration, and nearby tailing storage. Post mining reclamation shifted from flooding the open pit to backfilling instead.
In 1988, Kennecott signed a Local Agreement and Conditional Use Permit with Rusk County, the City of Ladysmith and the Town of Grant. The purpose of the agreement was to alleviate the impact of the mine by committing to protect the environment, enhance the local economy and provide opportunity for long-term economic gain. The agreement added requirements beyond Wisconsin’s mining and environmental laws and provided for the protection of groundwater and the Flambeau River. It contained more than 200 additional operating provisions, including:
Finally, after eight public hearings and numerous protests and public meetings, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources awarded the project all 11 permits it needed in 1991.
Construction began in 1991 with the removal and storage of topsoil for reclamation. The first ore shipments began in 1993 and continued until 1997. During operations, the mine produced 6,500 tons of ore every day. Fifty-five-ton trucks hauled material out of the 35-acre open pit and deposited it in nearby stockpiles. The mine operated on two 10-hour shifts daily, five days per week. The total cost of mine construction was $60 million. The Flambeau Mine produced 181,000 tons of copper, 334,000 ounces of gold and 3.3 million ounces of silver in four years of operation.
The Flambeau Mine ceased operations in 1997 and a $20 million reclamation project began. The reclamation plans were part of the initial permitting process, and had to be approved both by Wisconsin State regulators and local communities. The mine was returned to its original contour and total site area of 181 acres was reclaimed. Reclamation included:
Over the years there were legal cases brought against the mining project by long-time mining opponents. The most recent court decision was issued in August 2013 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which confirmed, in every way, Flambeau Mining Company’s long-time positive environmental record, its compliance with the federal Clean Water Act and all state and federal laws and regulations. At the time of the 2013 court decision, Dave Cline, Flambeau Mining Company spokesperson stated, “The Flambeau Mining Company operated in compliance with the WDNR issued permit throughout the mine's operation and reclamation – for more than 20 years. It never should have been sued under those circumstances. We have a demonstrated commitment to and positive environmental record at the Flambeau Mine site. We are pleased with this decision because it affirms our strong environmental record."
Press Release on U.S. Court of Appeals Decision (8/19/13)
U.S. Court of Appeals Order and Opinion (8/15/13)
Court Decision Denying Plaintiffs’ Legal Fees for U.S. Court of Appeals Case (9/28/12)
Press Release on U.S. District Court Decision (7/25/12)
U.S. District Court Order and Opinion (7/24/12)
Fact Sheet on Court Ruling (7/12)
1968 – Discovery of deposit
1974 – First permit application
1976 – Permit on hold because of economics and community protests
1986 – Viability of Flambeau re-evaluated; new conditions for permitting
1986-1991 – Permitting
1991 – Construction
1993 – First ore shipment
1997 – Mine ceases operation
1997-1999 – Reclamation