Chippewa Train Blockade Upsets Mining Plans
by Zoltan Grossman
A version of this article appeared in The Progressive magazine (October 1996)
At dawn on July 22, a group of five men drove to an isolated railroad crossing on the Bad River Chippewa Reservation in northern Wisconsin. They lit a sacred fire, placed a drum and eagle feather staff on the tracks, and set up four sacred staffs in the four cardinal directions. With its simple ceremony, the small group sent shock waves through government agencies and mining companies in the entire region.
The Anishinabe Ogitchida (Protectors of the People) had halted train shipments of sulfuric acid from the Southwest to the nearby Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Wisconsin Central Ltd. railroad had been shipping the acid to the Copper Range Corporation, to extract ore from the huge, recently reopened White Pine copper mine.
The only tracks to the mine cross the reservation, where they traverse crumbling old trestles over rivers and wetlands. The tribal government had secured a temporary federal injunction against the acid shipments until the trestles were repaired. Elsewhere in Wisconsin, chemical train spills had caused the evacuation of the town of Weyauwega early this year, and part of the city of Superior in 1992. When federal inspectors gave the green light to the acid trains, the Ogitchida acted. Ogitchida spokesperson Butch Stone compared the blockade to U.S. military strategy in the Gulf War: "Cut off its head and the mine will die." The company, however, started exploring options to truck the acid to the mine.
Sulfuric acid is a by-product of metallic sulfide mining, which has been opposed by a strong Wisconsin alliance of Native Americans, environmentalists, and sportfishers. A rally against Exxon's proposed Crandon mine, for example, drew 1000 participants last May. The White Pine controversy, however, stems from a rarer mining method, which injects a sulfuric acid solution into old mines to leach out the remaining ore. The project would use 550 million gallons of acid, injected into underground tunnels only five miles from Lake Superior. While some U.P. residents oppose Copper Range (owned by Toronto-based INMET), many hope the project will reverse the economic bust that occurred when the mine closed two years ago.
On July 1, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted a permit for the project, without first holding a hearing or drafting an environmental impact statement (EIS). Red Cliff Chippewa activist Walter Bresette, a leader of the Midwest Treaty Network, then resigned in protest as Indigenous Chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which formally advises the EPA. He later met with EPA representatives in Chicago, but received only a promise for a stepped-up environmental assessment.
As the Ogitchida press liason, Bresette compared the White Pine and Crandon proposals: "In Wisconsin, the feds are doing a full-blown EIS on one mine, to make sure it doesn't accidentally leak sulfuric acid. Then in Michigan they turn around and authorize a company to actually inject sulfuric acid into another mine, with no EIS. It boggles the mind."
After police backed off from arresting the Ogitchida, a negotiating team was set up that included Stone, Ogitchida attorney Gene Linehan, Tribal Chair John Wilmer, Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa spiritual leader Eddie Benton, Justice Department mediator John Terronez, and Wisconsin Central official Richard White (a white New Zealander sporting a Maori medallion for the occasion). They agreed that the blockade would be unarmed and not subject to police assault.
Stone, who was born and raised on the reservation, said, "As a sovereign people we have an inherent right to defend our land and our way of life. Our sovereignty is recognized by the treaties, but it goes back to a time before white people, before tribal governments ... We are somebody in our own land."
At a powwow honor dance for the Ogitchida, Chairman Wilmer took an unusual step for a tribal official by recognizing that the decisive action against the trains had come from outside his government. "The tribe had been involved in negotiations with state and federal agencies," said Wilmer. "As usual, their ears were deaf. Our words meant nothing to them. Then a few warriors took it upon themselves to defend their homeland ... Now the federal agencies have to do their job, which is the their trust responsibility over Indian lands. We stand behind our warriors. Because of them, the agencies and the railroad are now negotiating." Benton then told the crowd, "You will soon see a change in the attitude and practices of companies surrounding you ... We are not going to rest until this area is a toxic-free zone."
The blockade has brought about strong local unity. Internal conflicts between tribal governments, tribal activists, and "traditional" tribal members are generally set aside on Wisconsin reservations when it comes to environmental threats. But this unity is also now encompassing local white residents who had shown hostility toward Chippewa (Ojibwe) treaties in the early 1990s. A vigil in the town of Mellen where four of the blocked acid tankers had been parked was well received. An Ashland member of an anti-treaty group that had opposed Chippewa fishing rights told one blockade leader, "We're behind you 100 percent." This type of multiracial unity has also marked the grassroots movement against Exxon.
The blockade's reverberations have been felt far beyond the tracks. In Madison, state Attorney General James Doyle asked the federal government to reinspect the - possibly catastrophic - train route and to draft an EIS on White Pine. Pro-mining Republican Governor Tommy Thompson replied that that the blockade violates interstate commerce, and told this writer that he "won't do anything unless somebody asks me to' about the acid trains. The disagreement may serve as an opening shot of a 1998 gubernatorial contest.
Exxon attorney Peter Theo acknowledged that the blockade "heightens tensions" over what will happen if his company is permitted to mine next to the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation. Linehan affirmed that the blockade is a "beacon of light on how to organize and take action. It will set the stage for our environmental movement for a long time."
Towards the end of their physical blockade, the Ogitchida allowed four inspected trains carrying non-hazardous materials to pass through, but on the condition that they ride the trains through the reservation. On August 18, they transferred authority over the legal blockade to the Bad River tribal government, which secured a promise from Wisconsin Central not to ship acid through the reservation unless certain stringent conditions were met. The railroad announced on September 10 that it had moved some acid to White Pine on an alternate truck route. EPA officials began a series of meetings in the area on September 23, to ascertain the next federal move. Bresette commented, "Sovereignty is not something you ask for. Sovereignty is the act thereof. This blockade certainly demonstrates that."
Please call the EPA Region V to urge a full EIS on White Pine solution mining: Director Valdas Adamkus at (312) 886-3000, and Water Office Director Jody Traub at (312) 886-0126.