Political Matters: Native Issues in the Halls of Government


Hard rock mining blues

In 1980, I attended the International Indian Treaty Conference on the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana. I took Amtrak from St. Paul to Malta, Montana. After the scenic train trip, someone picked me up at the station and we drove about 40 miles to the AIM-sponsored conference site, which was hosted by Jim and Rose Main on their land in the rolling rez hills. It was a kind of paradise, as I recall. In the mornings I would bathe in the thermal pools of Big Warm Creek near the conference site, and then enjoy some of the abundant golden currants.

I also took a car trip during the treaty conference, with a group of Indians from Saskatchewan. I don’t remember where we were going in the old station wagon; but out in the middle of nowhere the car ran out of gas. In the pre-cell phone era, we were standing around the car on the lonely road and contemplating a long walk for help. After a short time, however, a gas tanker truck came along and stopped. After hearing our story, the driver unspooled a hose from the back of the truck, squirted a couple gallons of gas into the car’s tank and we were back on the road.

Getting back to the substance of this column, I remember conversations with the late Jim Main (Gros Ventre) about plans for mining gold near the reservation. He expressed concerns about the environmental damage from mining and possible deleterious health effects. Jim’s concerns were prescient, as the Zortman and Landusky gold mines proved to be a catastrophe.

Gold was extracted by a method call cyanide heap-leach mining, which, in simple terms, involves chopping off the top of a mountain, grinding up the ore into small chunks and heaping it on a large pad, and soaking the rubble with a dilute cyanide solution. The chemical solution is then siphoned off and the gold is extracted.

In 1982, nearly 3,000 liters of cyanide-tainted solution leaked from a containment pond at the Zortman and Landusky mines; and a section of piping used in the mines’ cyanide sprinkling system ruptured and released nearly 200,000 liters of cyanide solution onto the land and into creeks, according to an account on the website of the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College. “The tap water revealed cyanide concentration levels above drinking water standards and the community’s local water system was shut down.”

The situation at Ft. Belknap got worse. In the following two years, there were eight separate cyanide spills. In Sept. 1986, the mining firm illegally released 75 million liters (about 20 million gallons) of treated cyanide solution onto a plot of land, when a solution pond was close to overflowing after heavy rains. After one of the major spills, cyanide appeared in tap water in a mineworker’s housing unit. South of the gold mine, animals were found dead, and acid mine drainage contaminated nearly every stream draining from the mine.

In April, the National Wildlife Federation issued a reported titled “Honoring the River: How Hard Rock Mining Impacts Tribal Communities.” The report’s executive summary mentions the Zortman and Lundusky gold mines in Montana’s Little Rocky Mountains, “as a warning that pure water and industrial mining waste don’t mix. The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes [at Ft. Belknap] have felt the effects of years of cyanide, arsenic and lead contamination caused by the mines. In the years since the mines’ owners filed bankruptcy, public agencies have spent millions of dollars on cleanup and water treatment.”

I could write several thousand more words about the “Honoring the River” report, in light of the new threats posed by copper-nickel mining schemes in northeastern Minnesota, and Gogebic Taconite’s proposed open-pit iron mine south of the Bad River reservation in northern Wisconsin.

In the latter case, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker have passed a new mining law that undoes environmental safeguards – and ignores tribal interests – for the sake of developing what reportedly would be the world’s largest open-pit iron mine.

“Access to clean drinking water, clean air, and healthy fish and game are inherent human rights that no lawmaker can give away,” said Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, regarding the new report on hard rock mining.

As I have mentioned many times, the mainstream press needs to pay a lot more attention to the threats from mining in the North Country – and how the tribes are being steamrolled by the mining interests and compliant elected officials.