Bad River Tribe Opposes Iron Ore Mine Near Hurley

By Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel

Sept. 21, 2011 

Madison - Hours before leaders were slated to meet this afternoon with Gov. Scott Walker in Madison, the Bad River band of Lake Superior Chippewa said Wednesday that it opposes the development of a proposed iron ore mine near Hurley.

The tribe said that it believes an open pit mine in a range of hills in the same watershed as the tribe can’t be developed without harming the surrounding environment.

“The Bad River watershed is one of those places that should not be mined. It’s that simple," Michael Wiggins Jr., the tribal chairman, said at a capitol news conference.”

“We will not stand for an open-pit mine in the Bad River watershed.”

The mine would affect what tribal members “breathe, drink and eat for the next few hundred years," Wiggins said. “Our lands and our water truly are a significant part of our cultural identity and our way of life.”

“This is our land," said Frank Connors, a member of the tribal council. " This is where we live. We can't just pack up and move."

Mining legislation is expected to get a lot of attention this fall in the Legislature, with many Republican lawmakers, especially, saying that changes in mining laws are needed to help the Hurley mine. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's biggest business lobby, said mining is one of its top priorities because of the jobs the mine could create; but also because of the spillover effect for transportation, utilities and the state's manufacturing and mining sector.

The tribe is likely to play a significant role if a mine is built by Gogebic Taconite. The project is viewed as a major economic boost for the region, but it has also raised environmental questions. The mine would employ about 700 people.

Also, the tribe is awaiting approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on its application to allow it to set water standards on tribal properties. This would let the tribe impose limitations on water users that operate upstream and outside the reservation.

Despite the tribe’s opposition to a mine, Wiggins said that he understood Walker and legislators are interested in rewriting mining laws.

The band’s position on proposed iron mining legislation is that “such legislation should be based on sound science and sound legal principles,” Wiggins said in a statement released before the news conference.

He said that the band opposed measures in a draft bill circulated earlier this year that he said would both streamline and weaken the permitting process of the Department of Natural Resources.

Wiggins said that any new proposal must include several principles:

Iron ore mining that has the potential to cause acid drainage should be excluded. There are concerns among some environmentalists that the acid deposition in the rock could leach into groundwater and local surface waters.

Existing wetland standards should be maintained. Although no bill has been put forward, there are concerns by some environmentalists that there will be a push to rewrite wetland laws that would be less protective of the resource.

Permit times by the DNR should be “reasonable.” A draft bill called for a 300-day review process.

Contested case hearings should be allowed. The draft bill called for the elimination of this process, which can be used by citizens to challenge a regulatory decision before it could be challenged in court.

Gogebic Taconite announced earlier this year that it was putting its plans for the mine on hold until Wisconsin’s mining laws provided mining companies more certainty about the regulatory process.

Wiggins said that  the promise of jobs is just a “small sliver of consideration,” noting the area is home to a 16,000-acre wetland complex and wild rice beds that the tribe cultivates

“It truly is a pristine gem that is a benefit and resource for all of Wisconsin.”

Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this story from Madison.