After intense lobbying, a mining company secured favorable legislation to push forward an iron ore project in northern Wisconsin. It now says that wetlands are forcing it to re-evaluate the plan, but not everyone is convinced.
The proposed mine could potentially damage the watersheds around the Bad River Reservation, endangering the fragile ecosystem upon which this wild rice depends.
HURLEY, Wisc. — A proposed mining project has brought a Wisconsin county to work together with local Native American communities, but it’s also left hundreds of residents without promised jobs and many to wonder what the game is really about.
Gogebic Taconite’s plans for a $1.5 billion iron mine were announced in November 2010. Following heavy lobbying from the mining company, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker passed a controversial bill in 2013 that cleared the way for iron ore mining in the state. Environmentalists argued that the legislation gutted the state’s environmental protections, while supporters of the bill lauded its potential for creating hundreds of jobs.
At the only public hearing on the 2013 bill, held in Madison, 280 miles from the Bad River Reservation, Mike Wiggins Jr. said, “Because we’re directly downstream and set to endure the impacts of this project, we view this as an imminent threat. We view this as an act of genocide.”
Wiggins is the tribal chairman of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, located about 6 miles west of the proposed site in Ashland and Iron counties. Throughout the bill’s legislative process, Wiggins told MintPress, the Bad River Band was never officially consulted on a government-to-government basis.
The 1987 congressional amendment to the Clean Water Act granted qualifying tribes the right to be treated as states and allowed them to set their own water quality standards. This meant that tribes could create their own regulatory agencies more stringent than state water protection programs and could force upstream polluters to comply. It also demands that tribes be consulted in any project that would affect their reservation.
After the bogs and swamps were evaluated last year, Gogebic stated that the project would not yet move forward because they found considerably more wetlands than anticipated.
Yet Wiggins says it’s actually that Gogebic is “at a point where the present investment board is unwilling to put more money into it.”
“300 cubic football fields” of waste rock
Cyrus Hester, an environmental specialist with the Bad River Tribe of Lake Superior Chippewa, hold chunks of iron oxide and iron sulfide in the tribal offices in Odanah, Wis. The tribe is battling to stop a Florida company from opening a huge iron mine near its reservation. Hester contends run-off from waste rock from the mine could pollute the reservation’s water.
The Bad River Reservation was established by the 1854 Treaty of Lapointe along 38 miles of Lake Superior’s shores and Chequamegon Bay in northern Wisconsin. At 124,654 acres, it is the largest Ojibwe (Chippewa) reservation in the state. Situated downstream from the proposed mining site, the tribe is concerned that heavy metals would pollute the rivers and streams which flow down the Penokee Hills into the southern shores of Lake Superior.
While Wiggins says the tribe was never officially consulted on the proposed mine, the Bad River Band met with Gov. Walker in September 2011 to present its position statement on the proposed iron mine:
“In many parts of Wisconsin where iron and other metallic mineral deposits have been discovered, Indian tribes and Indian reservations would be adversely impacted if mining operations are approved. The adverse impacts would include pollution of air and water resources, destruction of fish and wildlife habitat, and loss of public lands which are currently open to off-reservation treaty rights for hunting, fishing and gather, as well as adverse cultural, economic, and social impacts. Under federal law the federal agencies have a trust relationship with Indian tribes and must, therefore, consult with and fully consider the impacts of their decisions on the tribes. Any change to Wisconsin’s mining laws should include provisions to require the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] to fully consult with and consider the potential impacts of mining projects on interested Indian tribes, in much the same manner as federal agencies are required under federal law.”
The statement further noted that “it is clear” that, given existing technologies, the proposed open pit mine could not be developed or operated without causing environmental harm throughout the Bad River watershed, the Bad River Reservation and Lake Superior.
Indeed, a 2012 study conducted by Lawrence University geologist Marcia Bjornerud for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) estimated that the proposed mine “would produce more than 300 million cubic meters of waste rock containing sulfides – or roughly 300 cubic football fields.”
This “would almost certainly damage one of the last continuous wild rice sloughs of any size in Wisconsin,” Bjornerud told MintPress. “This is a cultural thing we should protect.”
The GLIFWC was founded in 1984 as a natural resources management agency for 11 federally-recognized Ojibwe member tribes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. GLIFWC’s Voigt Intertribal Task Force protects the use of off-reservation natural resources such as fishing and wild rice.
Testifying before the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Mining and the
Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue on Jan. 23, 2013, GLIFWC Executive Director James E. Zorn said:
“The State does not have unfettered discretion to exercise its management prerogatives to the detriment of the tribes’ treaty rights and in ways that would be contrary to the requirements of the Lac Courte Oreilles v. Wisconsin, commonly known as the Voigt case. The State may not legislate away the tribes’ treaty rights; similarly, legislating the destruction of treaty resources through destruction of habitat may not be used to accomplish the same end. By authorizing the destruction of treaty resources and weakening the existing law, this legislation tramples on the tribes’ treaty rights, and the Commission opposes it.”
An attack on science and promises not kept
Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. promised an “all-out effort” to stop an iron ore mine near the tribe’s reservation in Madison, Wis. Wiggins and other tribal leaders spoke out against the mine as the state Assembly debated a bill designed to help ease the regulatory process to allow it.
Iron ore is a critical ingredient in steel, which is used in a range of products, from kitchen appliances to cars. According to Tim Myers, an engineer with Gogebic, iron ore was mined in the region “from the 1860s to the 1960s.” In the 1960s, the mines mostly closed, but now new technology is available that can make iron ore mining a viable pursuit again.
Indeed, Gogebic’s proposed iron ore mine would be the first in the state in over three decades.
“There will need to be a mitigation plan before we make a disturbance,” Myers told MintPress. “There has to be a reclamation plan. We have ideas to create a lake at the end and build a heel with the excess materials from the dig.”
The proposed mine would have a life of 35 years, bringing in electricity infrastructure and roads, he said. After the mine closes, he suggested that the site could be turned into an industrial park or even re-forested.
“People think we’d just be pushing dirt and it would go into the water,” Myers said. “But reviewing the water is a very big part of the application. We have to make a model to predict how the water will behave. We’d have to have a drainage system to catch the run off.”
While the company says that the wetlands are forcing it to re-evaluate the proposed mine, not everyone is so sure that’s really what is holding up the project.
“Gogebic is saying there’s so many wetlands that they have to re-evaluate the project,” said John Coleman, an environmental biologist for the GLIFWC, to MintPress. “That is what Gogebic is claiming. A few hundred acres of wetland is not the problem. The cost of mitigation is minor compared to building a mining site.”
Coleman suggested that the company is “stirring up political activity” toward deregulating the industry in Wisconsin. Indeed, Gogebic donated $700,000 toward helping Republicans survive recall elections in 2011 and 2012.
Further, when Gov. Walker unveiled his budget on Tuesday night, it showed steeps cuts to the budget of a science and research bureau under the state’s Department of Natural Resources. As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Environmentalists questioned whether scientists at the agency were coming under attack for research that has sometimes provoked criticism.” This research includes a 97-page report from 2013 that assesses the potential pollution problems created by iron ore mining in northern Wisconsin. While the report didn’t pass judgement on Gogebic’s proposed mine, it did provide “the strongest critical analysis” of what effect the mine could have on a watershed that empties into Lake Superior, according to the newspaper.
There are a number of mining projects in Michigan and Wisconsin and about 10 in Minnesota, Coleman says. There are several copper mining projects exploring areas on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, and some are close to the permitting process. Other sulfide exploration activities are just getting underway in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.
“Metal prices go up and down,” Coleman said. “Right now iron prices are way down. The boom in mining here is for the sulfide ores, metals bound up with sulfides. Iron mining is a dicey business. Even the long-term companies have closed their doors. Iron mines in Minnesota have been steadily closing over the years. There’s too much competition on the world market.”
Ultimately, he says, Iron County is in need of jobs. He added, “I find it upsetting that they [Gogebic] came in with promises it couldn’t deliver.”
“It would destroy the area”
Ashland County Chairman Pete Russo says the cost of mitigating the effects on the wetlands under the state’s Department of Natural Resources would be “outrageous” and Gogebic is reviewing its options.
“They’re not ready to file for permits,” Russo told MintPress. “They have no money.”
Heavy snowmelt in the spring runs into trout-intensive areas. Those trout and the water run into rivers that empty into Lake Superior. Russo isn’t sure whether adequate environmental protections could be ensured. “But even if it could,” he said, “people here would take lakes over mining.”
Noting that the county voted 19-1 for an ordinance to stop the mine, Russo says he’s against the proposed project and believes “it would destroy the area.”
The largest amounts of the ore are in Ashland County, he says, with less in Iron County, where most of the mine’s supporters live. Further, Iron County is located about 15 miles from the proposed site, in an area that would not be affected by downstream pollution.
A map showing the proposed area the iron-ore, open-pit mine would be operating from, which consists of 40 percent of the Lake Superior Basin coastal wetlands and is within the Bad River Reservation.
“Iron County made a deal with Gogebic to lease 3,300 acres of county land for a site to put the overburden,” Russo said. “Money came due at the end of January for $20,000, but they didn’t pay it. The Iron County Board agreement extended it for a year, but it will then cost $30,000.”
“I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said. “Chris Cline [founder of Foresight Energy] was going to fund this, but he’s not going through with it.”
Russo says he took issue related bills passed by the Wisconsin Legislature. For example, a tonnage tax on the proposed mine was initially going to pay 70 percent to Madison County, 30 percent of which would go toward maintaining roads and schools. But a second bill after Walker was elected superseded that bill to pay all the tax revenue to the state.
“He took the tonnage tax bill to pay to state, which left nothing to protect our water, [and nothing for] our schools or roads,” Russo said. “The mine is below the aquifer. We have wells around here. There’s no guarantee our wells won’t be affected.”
He also explained that when land is blasted, small particles of raw-form asbestos are released into the air.
The Ashland County Board approved a zoning ordinance last year that requires Gogebic to obtain a special-use permit from the county and make a minimum payment of $100,000 to defray expenses caused by the mine, such as traffic and cleanup costs.
Russo says he’s been threatened twice over his opposition to the project.
“Once, after leaving a meeting in Iron County someone came up to me and said there is a group discussing ‘how to get rid of you,’” he said. “The other time someone came up to me and said, ‘You shouldn’t be involved, it’s bad for your health.’”
He says, however, that after speaking with all of the county board supervisors, he learned that they’re also against the project. “We’ve got a tourism economy,” he said.
Meanwhile, Russo also confirmed that the Bad River Band have not been consulted during any part of the process.
“I told Bill Williams [president of Gogebic] way back that he should talk to them. I knew that was a big mistake,” he said.
During early meetings with the Bad River Band and other tribes, before Russo had decided whether he’d be for or against the proposed mine, a tribal member of the Red Cliff Band, which is part of the GLIFWC, approached him and asked: “How can you be against the tribe when you have Native blood in you yourself?”
When Russo asked how the tribal member knew that, he says, “He said, ‘Have you ever heard of Spirit World? It will talk to us sometimes.’ He was told in a dream.”
At that point, Russo said he had only recently learned about his ancestry from one of his cousins, whose grandmother found out that her sister’s great-great aunt is Mohegan from Massachusetts, where Russo was born.
“Coming up way back in the 1920s no one spoke about Native blood,” he said. “It was a hidden, shameful secret.”
As the Bad River Reservation is located within Ashland County, Russo says he feels he needs “to watch out for them.”