PROTECTING WISCONSIN WATERS:
Current Anti-Mining Struggles in the Penokee Hills and Lake Superior Region
By Sarah Tops
Open water stretches for miles and miles to the north, and a soft, cool breeze whips your hair into your eyes. The hardwood forest opens behind you to a pale sand beach in which you sink your toes. Gulls laugh and a single piping plover searches for mollusks amongst the gentle lapping waves. The rough outline of a commercial tug can be made out through the sea haze. No, you’re not on the east or west coast. This is the northern coast, often overlooked by most Americans, but not Midwesterners. The inland seas have been an inspiration and way of life for generations and generations up here.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Lake Superior, specifically, is the largest freshwater lake in the world, covering an area the size of South Carolina. Its sloughs and shorelines contain rich wild rice beds and its waters over 80 species of fish. The Lake Superior region, spanning Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, as well as Ontario to the north, has been home to the Ojibwe people for over five hundred years. However, like most of America’s beautiful, a natural place, it, too, is under threat of destruction and poisoning by industrial civilization. Since the late 1800s, the Lake Superior region has suffered from large-scale iron mining operations, supplying over three fourths of the nation’s iron ore. The land was stripped of this resource half a century ago, but with current rising prices of iron and other minerals surrounding Superior, mining companies are going back to dig out the dregs, a low-grade iron ore called taconite. Communities in the upper Midwest have been affected by air and water pollution and poverty associated with the boom-bust cycle of resource extraction. Wisconsin, however, has become a stronghold against large mining operations in the past several decades, due to a mining moratorium law passed after statewide opposition to a sulfide mine proposed in the mid `70s. Now, Wisconsin’s strong environmental laws are being re-written by a new administration working hand-in-hand with mining companies. This story probably sounds pretty familiar to you – you see the same
destruction of unique and special habitat when it comes to fracking in the northeast, mountaintop removal in Appalachia, or the tar sands in Alberta. Not only is the immediate area of extraction affected by destruction of the landscape, but air and water is poisoned for miles
and miles, not to mention the invasion of roads, processing plants, and waste disposal sites associated with such operations, all of which require their own resources and spew out their own pollution. Many of the same companies are responsible for this environmental destruction and community destitution. One example of such a company now threatens Lake Superior; the Cline Group, who owns coal mines in Appalachia and Illinois, has created a subsidiary called Gogebic Taconite (GTac) who’s set their bull’s-eye on northern Wisconsin. GTac has proposed a 22-mile open pit taconite mine in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills, headwaters of the Bad River and Kakagon Sloughs, which flow into Lake Superior. The U.S. Geological Survey names this region as one of the largest undeveloped taconite resources in the country, and if permitted, the GTac mine would be the largest mine Wisconsin has ever seen. But in order for the mine to be permitted, Wisconsin environmental law must first be changed, and the state’s new cut-throat conservative administration is doing all it can to weaken the laws, bringing big business and promising jobs to the state at the expense of the natural world and human health.
WISCONSIN’S SAFE-MINING HISTORY
Wisconsin has been named one of the least desirable states for mining by mining industry journals in the last two decades. This environmental success is largely due to the Crandon Mine struggle from1976 to 2003. A broad-based support of an Indian, environmental, and sport-fishing alliance defeated a proposal to build a metallic sulfide mine in central Wisconsin; a proposal backed by mining behemoths Exxon, Rio Algom, and BHP Billiton. The Mining Moratorium that was passed is not a straight-up ban on mining, but a requirement that before the state can issue a permit for mining sulfide ore bodies, mining companies must provide an example of where a sulfide mine in the U.S. or Canada has NOT polluted surface or ground waters during or after mining. This is also called Wisconsin’s “Prove it First” law. The political movement responsible for this landmark legislation has-been called “a very real threat to the global mining industry” by mining industry journals. “The increasingly sophisticated political
maneuvering by environmental special interest groups [has] made permitting a mine… an impossibility.”
So what does sulfide mining have to do with taconite extraction? GTac has been touting their taconite operation to be “clean” compared to metallic sulfide mining, free of acid mine drainage and other pollution hazards. However, despite the fact the company is extracting iron does not mean that dangerous sulfites are not presenting the waste rock dug up from the site. Since 2005 alone, neighboring Minnesota taconite mines have been fined over $1.3M for dozens of air and water quality violations, proving that modern taconite mining companies are chronic polluters. The taconite dust itself has been linked to mesothelioma cancers in Minnesota, and excess heavy metals and mercury in waste rock have polluted rivers and streams that
provide drinking water to Midwesterners.
THE PENOKEE HILLS AND WISCONSIN LEGISLATION
Wisconsin’s strong mining laws are in danger because of the state’s new administration, infamous for anti-union legislation and austerity measures inciting historical unrest in Madison and throughout the state last year. It comes as little surprise that state legislators
are set on weakening current law, making it easier for mining companies to obtain permits for their operations. The draft of a new mining bill was leaked to the public late this spring, a bill gutting environmental protections and democratic process via citizen input.
This draft was met with outrage from numerous environmental, citizen, and tribal groups, and was supposedly scrapped. Currently, however, the proposal is being rewritten, and bits and pieces of the legislation are being snuck into otherwise innocuous bills pertaining
to water properties and such.
Luckily, opposition to any weakening of Wisconsin mining law is broad and includes nongovernmental environmental groups, outdoor sport groups, residents in Northern Wisconsin, and beyond. Hearings both in urban Madison and the rural North have been packed with concerned citizens. What’s particularly inspiring and important to younger activists involved in the struggle is the experience and camaraderie with older activists who engaged in the successful Crandon Mine struggle. Similarly inspiring is the non-compromising attitude of the
Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, whose council has openly and continually denounced any development of a mine that would poison their fragile wild rice beds downstream of the mining site. A broad network of people and groups who oppose the mine has erupted from all
over the state, from urban Milwaukee, home to big mining equipment companies such as Caterpillar, to rural Steven’s Point, notable for supplying an army of student activists during the Crandon Mine struggle.
WATER IS LIFE
Chairman Mike Wiggins of the Bad River Band speaks clearly of the importance of Wisconsin’s current environmental struggles when he says” Our water quality standards are our Nation’s proud proclamation of how we value our waterways and wetlands. From just north of the
Penokee Mountain area to Lake Superior, our Tribe is ready to stand up and protect Nibi, water, for all peoples and future generations.” Anti-mining groups recognize the importance of water, and the current struggle is as much anti-pollution as it is pro-clean water. We’re init for the long haul, as this struggle is connected with struggles for clean water and clean air happening all over the globe. The people involved in the grassroots Penokee Mine struggle and the protection of Lake Superior are interested in cross-pollinating with similar grassroots struggles, and would love for you to contact us, either via Save the Water’s Edge (a freelance news site in Northern Wisconsin) at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Madison for the Penokees (support group based in Madison) at email@example.com. For more information, please see some resources below:
• Resisting Resource Colonialism in the Lake Superior Region by Al Gedicks: http://www.zcommunications.org/contents/180634/print
• Resisting Resource Colonialism in the Lake Superior Region by Al Gedicks 2011 (Lake Superior Zine Edition)
• Minerals and the Future of the Lake Superior Region by Karl Fate. Posted/19/2011 Karl wrote this over 30 years ago.
• Save the Water’s Edge: http://www.savethewatersedge.com/
• Penokee Hills Education Project: http://www.miningimpactcoalition.org/
• Concerned Citizens Facebook Groups http://www.facebook.com/groups/penokeemine/