Why Laura supports sixteen citizens who asked the EPA for help in Wisconsin
Jun 09, 2016
Laura Gauger was living in northern Wisconsin in 1997 when she first heard about a mine that Exxon wanted to build near Crandon. She did not know much about mining at the time but was concerned about how pollution from the mine would affect her community.
She attended a neighborhood meeting and was very fortunate to meet an 81 year-old gentleman named Roscoe Churchill. He had been fighting Rio Tinto for two decades over development of the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, Wisconsin and was now fighting Exxon as well. Roscoe taught Laura about the mining industry and its negative environmental impact and soon became her mentor and friend.
Together, Roscoe and Laura researched and co-authored a 1200-page book about the Flambeau Mine that looked at Wisconsin’s mining laws and the quality of the ground and surface water at the mine site. They did numerous open records requests of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to obtain official documents and environmental monitoring reports for the mine. The effort opened Laura’s eyes to the water pollution problems caused by the Flambeau Mine, and she was eager to do what she could to educate her community and prevent greater damage.
In 2007 after Roscoe passed away, Laura made a commitment to continue the work he had done to protect our water from polluters. This eventually led to the filing of a lawsuit against Rio Tinto in federal court over violations of the Clean Water Act. According to Laura, “It was love – a love for the water, a love for the ‘little ones’ whose voices often are not heard by those in power, and, yes, a love for my pal, Roscoe – that helped me keep going and see this thing through to the end.”
Laura was cautiously optimistic going into court because the tributary of the Flambeau River at the heart of the lawsuit had recently been added to the EPA’s list of impaired waters due to high copper levels linked to the Flambeau Mine. The levels had gotten out of control because Rio Tinto had never obtained an important permit (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit) required by the Clean Water Act that would have limited the amount of copper getting into the stream.
At trial, the U.S. District Court agreed with Laura and her fellow petitioners and found Rio Tinto to be in violation of the Clean Water Act on numerous counts.
Laura’s excitement at winning the court case, however, quickly came to an end. Rio Tinto appealed the decision, and, in a strange turn of events, the Court of Appeals let them off the hook. In its ruling, the appellate court did not dispute the fact that the water was polluted. Rather, they focused on a very narrow issue regarding whether or not Rio Tinto could be held accountable for the company’s failure to have the federally-mandated Clean Water Act permit. They proceeded to rule in the mining company’s favor because the Wisconsin DNR, in its capacity as the administrator of the Clean Water Act in Wisconsin, had never required the company to obtain the mandatory permit.
In other words, the Court of Appeals allowed a mistake made by the Wisconsin DNR in its administration of the Clean Water Act to shield Rio Tinto from being held accountable for the pollution.
As one of the petitioners, Laura had to pay $20,500 to the polluter for legal fees. Fortunately, she was showered with community support and quickly raised the entire amount.
While Rio Tinto won their appeal, the example of the Flambeau Mine will be a cautionary tale of what happens when citizens have to shoulder the cost of holding government accountable for protecting our water.
Laura supports the citizens who signed the Petition for Corrective Action because she doesn’t want the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to let another Rio Tinto happen again. She also knows first-hand that actions like the PCA are a crucial alternative to piecemeal litigation that can impose financial and other burdens on citizens.
Laura believes “if the DNR is not properly administering the Clean Water Act, the EPA needs to know.”
Midwest Environmental Advocates would like to extend thanks to Laura for sharing her story and a very special thanks to Communications and Development Advisor Lily Comp who interviewed Laura and wrote her story for her spring internship. We loved having your help this year Lily!
Photo submitted by Laura Gauger.