The Fight Against Wisconsin’s Iron Mine
Tribal leaders, environmentalists and local officials have united to fight a massive mine which could be toxic to a water-rich area known as “Wisconsin’s Everglades.”
The Battle Over Penokee Hills
The iron deposits in the Penokee Hills of Ashland and Iron counties had been known about for more than a century, but were of a type — taconite — considered too low-grade to mine: the ore is only 15 to 30% iron. But the rise in iron prices since 2000 changed the picture and by 2010 Gogebic Taconite had become very interested in opening a mine.
Throughout the debate on the Iron Mining bill, the concerns of the Bad River and Red Cliff Ojibwe, the two tribes most directly affected by the proposed mine, have been ignored by both Gogebic and the Wisconsin legislature. Bad River Ojibwe tribal chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr., complained that legislators have met “wealthier, nontribal communities in the north while making no effort to visit affected Native American communities.”
At one public hearing, Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) said that he doesn’t think it’s our job “to provide a seat at the table for the tribes.” In the mind of some Republican legislators, the tribes are just another interest group on this issue rather than a sovereign Indian nation within the boundaries of the state, as numerous court decisions have recognized.
These legislators see the tribe as standing in the way of thousands of jobs proponents claim will be created by the mine. However, studies of mining communities by the late Dr. William Freudenburg, a sociologist at the UW-Madison, suggest that the highest levels of long-term poverty in the U.S. tend to be in former mining communities like Appalachia (coal), the Ozarks (lead), Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (iron and copper), and the former iron mining area around Hurley, Wisconsin and on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. According to Freudenburg, “roughly half of all published findings indicate negative economic outcomes in mining communities…there appears to be no scientific basis for accepting the widespread, ‘obvious’ assumption that mining will lead to economic improvement.” The Rural Sociological Society’s Task Force on Persistent Rural Poverty identified resource extraction not as an antidote to poverty, but a cause of it.
“We don’t have a healthy main street along 100 miles of the Mesabi Range,” said retired Minnesota iron miner Bob Tammen at a listening session on the iron mining bill in Ashland. “If mining brings prosperity, how come our communities don’t have it?”
If anything, the impact of mining on local economies has actually gotten worse: most competitive iron mines today are increasingly automated, requiring far fewer workers than in previous decades.
In their efforts to portray the mine as an economic boon for a depressed rural area, mining supporters have often ignored or belittled the existing economies of Native American communities. For example, a recent Associated Press story described a poverty-stricken tribe standing “in the path of a major effort to create new jobs in Wisconsin” and called the Bad River Casino “one of the state’s smallest.” There is no mention of the fact that the casino is the largest employer in Ashland County and through gaming compacts, contributes $100,000 annually to fund local services and economic development initiatives.
The devaluation of the existing economy also ignores the critical role of the ecosystem. Ashland City Council member Kelly Westlund explained the integral relationship between the economy and the ecology at a Madison press conference on the iron mining bill. “Tourism is growing, forestry, recreation, we have a lot of innovative entrepreneurs starting home-based businesses. What’s so dangerous about this bill is that because so many of those things are dependent on sustainable natural resource use, that if something happens to the water, it would take away all these opportunities that are finally getting a chance to see the benefits.”
The 16,000-acre complex of wetlands, woodlands and sand dunes that comprise the Kakagon /Bad River Sloughs provides food security (wild rice) for the Ojibwe, acts as a filter to provide clean drinking water to local communities and provides spawning habitat for lake sturgeon and other species in Lake Superior. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental treaty ratified by the United States, has designated the Kakagon/Bad River Sloughs a “wetland of international importance.” The jobs created by this ecosystem are more numerous and more long-term than any jobs provided by a boom-bust mining economy.
These wetlands had previously been protected by the Wisconsin DNR as “Areas of Significant Natural Resource Interest” because of their direct hydrological connection to areas and waterways with a special designation, such as trout streams and Lake Superior. Development in these areas was severely restricted.
But the critical economic, cultural and ecological importance of the wetlands of the Penokee Hills was dismissed in one sentence of the iron mining bill whose language had largely been written by Gogebic. “Because of the fixed location of ferrous mineral deposits in the state,” the law states, “it is probable that mining these deposits will result in adverse impacts to wetlands and that, therefore, the use of wetlands for bulk sampling and mining activities, including the disposal or storage of mining wastes or materials…is presumed to be necessary.”
Bill Williams, Gogebic president, casually dismissed the ecological and economic importance of the area in a comment to the Green Bay Press Gazette: “Is this the only beautiful area up here?…There are hundreds of areas like this up here and there still would be.”
By contrast, local officials in Ashland and Bayfield Counties emphasized the importance of the ecosystem to their economies. The mayors of all three communities downstream from the proposed mine in Bayfield, Washburn and Ashland testified at a recent listening session that they would not benefit from a mine. “The overriding thought on any economic development in the Bayfield area,” said Bayfield Mayor Larry MacDonald, “is do no harm to Lake Superior, which is 10% of the world’s fresh water. You put one drop of pollutant in there and it takes 192 years to get out of there. Collectively, we are afraid.”
Ashland Mayor Bill Whalen expressed the solidarity between the Ojibwe and the local communities at a press conference. “This is not a Native Sovereign issue vs. the State of Wisconsin,” he said. “This is a water and legislative issue that affects us all.”
The major supporters of the mine live in the Ironwood/Hurley area about 15 miles from the proposed mine. They would benefit from mining jobs but would not suffer the effects of downstream pollution. Mining opponents have invited Hurley mine supporters to participate in efforts to develop sustainable jobs. “We need more people growing more food,” said Westlund. “We can’t do that with bad water.”
In September 2011, the Bad River Ojibwe met with Governor Walker to present its position statement on the proposed iron mine: “It is clear, based on available geologic and environmental information, that such an open pit mine cannot be developed and operated using current mining technologies and practices without destroying the environmental quality, including the waters, wetlands, streams, rivers, air, lands and forests of the Bad River watershed, the Bad River Indian Reservation, and Lake Superior,” the statement noted. The proposed mine, tribal chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr. noted, “would destroy the Bad River watershed and the Band’s way of life.”
The Ojibwe also emphasized that any new mine legislation should be based on sound scientific and legal principles, for instance, that it should exclude any project that has the potential to cause acid mine drainage. None of the tribe’s 10 principles were considered in drafting the iron mining bill. Governor Walker’s only response to the tribe’s concerns was that he heard what they had to say.
Wiggins fears the sulfide minerals in both the ore and waste rock could release sulfates that would destroy their wild rice while increased mercury loadings would result in fish consumption advisories in an environment already at risk from mercury contamination from past and present iron and copper mining. According to the Lake Superior Binational Program, taconite mining is already the largest source of mercury emissions in the Lake Superior basin. There is no suitable technology to curtail these emissions.
The framing of the mining controversy by mainstream media as an issue of jobs vs. environmental protection gives short shrift to the issue of cultural survival for the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe. At the only public hearing on the 2013 Iron Mining bill, held in Madison, 280 miles from the Bad River reservation, Wiggins described what this legislation meant for his people. “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 had good cause for such a serious charge. Phase 1 of the open pit mine envisioned by Gogebic would be 4 miles long by l.5 miles wide and 1000 feet deep. It would be the world’s largest open pit taconite mine, dwarfing even the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, currently considered the biggest.
Mining proponents claim that taconite ores do not contain sulfide minerals such as pyrite, which can produce acid mine drainage and poison local water supplies with dissolved toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead. But the Wisconsin Geological Survey reported as long ago as 1929 that there is pyrite associated with the ore and waste rock. The United States Geological Survey reported the same in 2009. A recent study by Lawrence University geologist Marcia Bjornerud, for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, used publicly available information on the ore body to estimate that the 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,” said Bjornerud. “This is a cultural thing we should protect.”
Gogebic lobbyist Bob Seitz criticized Bjornerud’s findings because she didn’t have access to proprietary data on core samples held by the company. But the company refuses to release this to the public. In Minnesota, sulfate releases from iron ore waste rock has resulted in a wild rice dead zone for 100 miles downstream from the Mesabi Iron Range in the St. Louis River watershed. Elevated sulfate releases have also been shown to change mercury into methyl mercury, which can accumulate in fish tissue and is toxic to those who eat the fish.
Bill Williams denies that sulfide minerals in the deposit will cause any environmental problems. And if they do, Williams told a reporter that his company would “engineer a solution to ensure that tainted waters don’t harm groundwater or the watershed, including the Bad River Reservation.” But the industry has been unable to provide a single example of where the mining of sulfide minerals has not caused surface and groundwater pollution.
To protect their wild rice beds the tribe has asserted their sovereign authority under the Clean Water Act to enforce tribal water quality standards on its reservation. Any polluted waters flowing from the Penokee Hills open pit mine and waste piles into the Bad River watershed and the tribe’s wild rice beds is subject to tribal water quality standards enforced by the EPA.
Just as the Mole Lake Ojibwe’s assertion of tribal sovereignty served as a rallying point for all those concerned with protection of the Wolf River watershed, the Bad River Ojibwe’s assertion of tribal sovereignty has served to bring together Indians, environmental and sport fishing groups as well as local elected officials into a broad movement for watershed protection. “From just north of the Penokee Mountain area to Lake Superior,” says Mike Wiggins, Jr., “our tribe is ready to stand up and protect Nibi (water) for all peoples and future generations.” Gogebic and state officials who support its mine are in for a long, hard fight over this issue.
Al Gedicks is emeritus professor of sociology at UW-La Crosse and a longtime environmental and indigenous rights activist and scholar. He is the author of “Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations” (South End Press, 2001).