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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Opposition to mining unites activists in Wisconsin and El Salvador
The state legislature will likely take up a bill next year
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Jan Morrill
Jan Morrill

El Salvador and northern Wisconsin seem like worlds apart. But the two societies face a common debate over mining operations.

As the Wisconsin Legislature plans to take up a mining bill again next year, activists from here and El Salvador are connecting in hopes of helping each other.

Wisconsin activists are trying to stop the Legislature from once again allowing mining in the state; the Salvadoran activists are fighting to keep the San Sebastian Gold Mine - owned by a Wisconsin company, the Commerce Group - near the town of Santa Rosa de Lima from reopening.

Activists from El Salvador will speak at Edgewood College's Regina Hall on Sunday, Nov. 11, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., and at UW Science Hall on Monday, Nov. 12, at 4 p.m.

"We have a lot that we can learn from each other," says Marc Rosenthal, a Madison man who helped facilitate the exchange. "That kind of person-to-person exchange is always powerful. Our world gets bigger when we do that."

The Milwaukee-based Commerce Group bought the San Sebastian mine in the southeast corner of El Salvador in 1968. It ceased operations in 1999, when the price of gold was low. But now that gold prices are skyrocketing, the Commerce Group has been trying to reopen the mine.

But the company ran up against serious opposition from residents, who were alarmed by pollution the mine had already caused. Jan Morrill, an activist with International Allies Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador, says pollution of the San Sebastian River has been extreme, with cyanide levels nine times higher than allowed and iron levels 1,000 times what is healthy. Kidney failure, cancer and a rare autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome are all on the rise, she says.

"The result is that people can't use that water," says Morrill, who will be among the team visiting Madison this weekend. "They're now buying their water and trucking it in."

Residents there pressured the Salvadoran government to revoke the mine's permits in 2006. But now Commerce Group is suing the country to allow it to operate, a case that is playing out in the World Bank.

Morrill says the lesson for communities in Wisconsin is that "the social movement is the one stopping these mines."

Wisconsin has had a moratorium on mining since 1997. Companies that want to open a new mine must show they have operated a metallic sulfide mine in the United States or Canada for 10 years without causing any pollution.

Environmentalists around the world have praised the ban as a landmark. But there is pressure to change it. Gogebic Taconite proposed a $1.5 billion open-pit ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties, but withdrew plans earlier this year after the Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have allowed it.

The Legislature is expected to try again next January.

Morrill says that working with people in El Salvador has taught her a lot about grass-roots efforts. She says that Wisconsinites can learn something from their efforts.

"It's a lot of work," she says. "It's a lot of sitting down with your neighbors in your church and talking to them."

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