Mining Disaster

Exxon, Operator of a Mine that Colombian Indians Say has Destroyed Their Homeland, is Planning Another Venture in Wisconsin

Armando Valbuena Gouriyu speaks with quiet pride about his people, the Wayuu, an indigenous tribe inhabiting the Guajira Peninsula in Colombia, the northernmost point in South America. With a decentralized, rural society, the Wayuu successfully resisted colonial conquest. They traded with the British, Dutch and French, fought off pirates, and stubbornly retained a barter economy, as well as their own language and customs. “That helped us to survive,” Gouriyu says.

Then came Exxon and all that changed.

In 1980, the Colombian government entered into a pact with Exxon to extract coal from the Guajira Peninsula. The contract was one of the largest joint ventures in the history of Latin America, with the world’s largest transnational corporation, to create the largest mine on the continent. The immense El Cerrejon mine, 30 miles long and two to three miles wide, reaps 15 million tons of coal annually.

The Wayuu, who had lived in harmony with this semi-desert land by raising sheep, gathering fruit, farming, fishing, hunting and trading, were promised jobs at El Cerrejon. As it turned out, Gouriyu says, 5,000 of his people became wage laborers for Exxon but were dismissed two years later when the mine began operating. Now, he says, only 10 Wayuu are employed by Exxon. About 7,000 Colombians work at El Cerrejon and most of the technicians come from the United States.

Gouriyu himself was trained by Exxon for a job as a mechanical technician but, in 1988, he and seven other workers who represented the miners in negotiations with the company were fired.

To extract the coal, Exxon has sucked up the groundwater, dried up the rivers and, in the process, denuded the grasslands on which the Wayuu depend for subsistence, according to Gouriyu. “Exxon only cares about profits; it’s really no different whether it’s Colombia or the United States,” he says, adding that people living near the mine are “in total misery.” They suffer respiratory diseases from coal dust, noise from ceaseless underground explosions and the fumes of 100 diesel trucks transporting 170 tons of coal a day on a 24-hour schedule.

Gouriyu was recently a speaker at an international conference on environmental genocide in northern Wisconsin, where Exxon is planning a zinc-copper sulfide mine. The president of Exxon’s Wisconsin project, Jerry Goodrich, was once vice president of operations at El Cerrejon.

Exxon’s proposed mine at Crandon, Wisconsin, would be adjacent to the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation on a 12-square-mile tract of land promised to the Chippewa by the U.S. government in 1855. The Chippewa fear that Exxon’s Crandon project will have as devastating an effect on their culture and economy as the Colombian mine has had on the Wayuu.

“We will lose everything here if the mine happens, everything that Mother Earth has given us,” said Frances Van Zile, enrollment clerk for the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa.

The Crandon mine has been before Wisconsin’s stringent Department of Natural Resources for more than two years, and it may be another two before the mine gets a final resolution. According to Jim Holperin of the Natural Resources Education Center in Eagle River, Wisconsin, “If you ask the person on the street, they’ll say they’re against any mining. Talk about sulfide pollution in the groundwater, and they’ll definitely oppose it. But if you mention the $11-an-hour jobs, they’ll change their minds.”

The proposed zinc and copper mine would be one of the largest underground mines ever dug in North America and operating it would require the largest waste disposal ever built in Wisconsin. The main shaft would be dug to a depth of 2,000 feet. The mine would extract 55 million tons of metal ore and generate an estimated 44 million tons of waste in its lifetime. Because of the toxic nature of metal sulfides, Gouriyu said that the Wisconsin mine would be more dangerous than El Cerrejon.

The Exxon mine would be situated just east of the Mole Lake Reservation at the headwaters of the Wolf River. The Wolf is Wisconsin’s largest whitewater trout stream, a popular river for rafting and canoeing, and designated as an Outstanding Resource Water (ORW) and National Wild and Scenic River.

Treated wastewater from the mine would be dumped, at a rate up to 3,000 gallons per minute, either into temporary retainer basins or, more likely, into Swamp Creek. Swamp Creek is a trout stream that flows into wild rice beds on the reservation and then into the Wolf. The Chippewa have harvested rice from these beds for “hundreds and hundreds of years,” Van Zile explained. “It is one of our sacred foods.”

The constant pumping of wastewater from the mine shaft, at a rate of up to 2,000 gallons per minute, would also draw down water levels in the area, affecting lakes and trout streams, wetlands and local wells.

The dumping of tailings in a wetland area, with the aquifer close to the surface, will make an accident “inevitable,” according to Al Gedicks, a sociology professor, mining critic, and author of the book, The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations.

“When you have that kind of waste material in that kind of environment, you’re just inviting disaster,” Gedicks contends. Lowering the water table and dumping wastewater into the Wisconsin River watershed will jeopardize the habitat for fish and aquatic organisms and the very sensitive wild rice plants, he says, adding that the mine would mean “destruction of the environment and the people who depend on that environment.”