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Embattled Great Lakes woman fights to defend clean water

Ordered to pay mining company’s court costs
By staff |
September 10, 2014
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Duluth, MN - Laura Gauger, originally a farm girl from Wisconsin, has been saddled with a big bill from a multinational mining corporation. Gauger, now of Duluth, Minnesota, is a citizen plaintiff in a Clean Water Act lawsuit against Rio Tinto of London. The case centered on illegal discharges of pollutants into a stream at Rio Tinto’s Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Gauger and her co‐plaintiffs won the case in U.S. District Court and exposed the pollution from the metallic sulfide mine. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed the decision late in 2013 and denied a petition for rehearing. Now the court has ordered the plaintiffs, including Gauger as an individual, to pay Rio Tinto’s court costs, totaling over $60,000.

This decision can have a chilling effect on the ability and willingness of ordinary citizens to speak up, and on the lawyers needed to help them. Gauger said, “If polluters can get away with bullying even one citizen for trying to enforce the Clean Water Act, it will make it more difficult for all of us to protect our drinking water, lakes and streams.”

At one time Wisconsin’s Flambeau Mine was touted as an example of ‘environmentally responsible’ mining across the entire Great Lakes region and as far away as Alaska, partly as an effort to convince local citizens to allow further mining in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The lawsuit Gauger participated in highlighted the serious water pollution problems at the Flambeau Mine site. In 2012 the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin agreed with the plaintiffs and found Rio Tinto to be in violation of the Clean Water Act on numerous counts. The ruling, however, was overturned on appeal.

The Court of Appeals did not dispute the lower court’s finding that Rio Tinto had discharged contaminated runoff from the Flambeau Mine site into public waters on an ongoing basis since at least 2006. Rather, the decision was based on a technicality that, in effect, allowed errors made by the State of Wisconsin in its administration of the Clean Water Act to shield Rio Tinto from prosecution. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had never required Rio Tinto to obtain a NPDES [National Pollution Discharge Elimination System] permit, a requirement of the Clean Water Act that would have put strict limitations on the amount of pollutants discharged to the stream.

The stream at the heart of the lawsuit, a tributary of the Flambeau River, was recently added to the EPA’s list of “impaired waters” due to copper and zinc toxicity linked to the Flambeau Mine operation. According to Gauger, “This proves our case had merit and it also suggests to me that the mining lobbyists in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Alaska who to this day tout the Flambeau Mine as an environmental success story are either misinformed or intentionally misleading the public in an effort to further their own selfish interests.”

Gauger now finds herself burdened with personally paying a substantial portion of Rio Tinto’s court costs. She is seeking support from the community to help her cover these costs through a fundraiser. If you would like to donate to Gauger’s fund, please visit http://bit.ly/laurag2014.