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Political Matters
PolyMet and Tribal Concerns
Thursday, May 05 2016
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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As I reported in my April column, Gov. Mark Dayton recently instructed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) not to authorize any new lease agreements for mining on state lands with Twin Metals Minnesota. Twin Metals has been moving forward on a $2.8 billion underground copper-nickel mine near Birch Lake in northeastern Minnesota.

Dayton expressed concern that mining activities might pollute lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), which he called “a crown jewel in Minnesota and a national treasure.”

Dayton’s move followed the DNR’s decision that the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for Polymet’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Babbit was adequate, and that project could move into the permitting phase. I have written numerous columns about the potentially catastrophic environmental impacts from sulfide mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region.

I have noted that the Ojibwe bands (Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage), which retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, have been raising objections to the PolyMet mining scheme for years.

How can Minnesota sign off on PolyMet’s mine and then object to the Twin Metals project? Regarding Dayton’s decision not to authorize state mineral leases to Twin Metals, Nancy Schuldt, the water protection coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band, said that action was “at least, a step the governor could take to help protect important natural and cultural resources in the 1854 ceded territory, because there is a quite a lot of overlap between the Superior National Forest and the 1854 ceded territory.”

However, Schuldt remains troubled by “the comments that have been made about how we need to protect this ‘jewel’ of the Boundary Waters, as this federally-protected protected wilderness, and somehow it’s okay to let PolyMet destroy the Lake Superior Basin? I’m not sure I understand… that position, which seems to be what the governor is insinuating: that PolyMet’s one thing, but we can’t let sulfide mining destroy the Boundary Waters. I have a hard time with that.”

Incredibly, as Schuldt mentioned, “the governor has not met with the tribes at all on this issue, on either the Twin Metals leases or the PolyMet project.”

On this point, I called Dayton’s press secretary, Matt Swenson. “I do know that the DNR commissioner and all the folks who are working on the PolyMet issue communicate regularly with the tribes, and have met with them numerous times,” Swenson responded. “I would have to go back and check as to whether the governor has met with them.”

Swenson called me back after consulting with Dayton’s scheduler. There have been no meetings between the governor and Ojibwe band officials about copper-nickel mining. As far as the DNR’s decision about the adequacy of the PolyMet environmental review, Nancy Schuldt said that tribal officials determined that “it would not be particularly strategic” to appeal the DNR decision, because such a challenge “would be heard in a state court, and we’re not really interested in trying to argue with the state over the adequacy of the EIS, when they haven’t listened to us for the last eight years.”

Instead, the tribal “cooperating agencies” in the EIS process have formally objected to the U.S. Forest Service’s Record of Decision (ROD) approving the land exchange, which is a crucial part of PolyMet’s NorthMet project.

PolyMet would get access to land in the Superior National Forest for its open pit mine, and provide other land in exchange. Schuldt said that tribal officials “were a little disturbed” that the Forest Service rushed its draft ROD on the land exchange, and published it before the final EIS on the PolyMet mine was approved by the DNR.

The tribes also are meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must decide on whether or not to issue a wetland permit for the PolyMet mine. PolyMet’s project involves “almost a thousand acres of direct wetland impact and untold thousands of acres of indirect wetland impacts that have not had mitigation proposed for them,” said Schuldt, who added that issuing a permit to allow “this much wetland destruction” would be unprecedented in the lower 48 states.

Schuldt also hipped me to Water Legacy’s petition last summer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which calls for a review of Minnesota’s negligent actions vis-à-vis the federal Clean Water Act. In short, some 25 mining facilities in state are operating with expired permits, imperiling our water resources, wild rice, etc.

In early April, the EPA launched an investigation pursuant to Water Legacy’s petition, and requested permit files from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on all of the mining operations. The EPA investigation will be the subject of a future Political Matters column.

Brewski Battle Up North
Tuesday, April 05 2016
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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The controversy over copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota has ensnared Duluth’s Bent Paddle Brewing Company. On March 7, the Silver Bay City Council voted 3-2 to remove Bent Paddle beer from its municipal liquor store, because the brewer is part of a business coalition opposed to copper-nickel mining.

The Silver Bay decision to ban the beer followed on the March 3 approval by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) of the final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the NorthMet project, the proposed PolyMet Mining, Inc. copper-nickel mine south of Babbitt. The DNR’s decision that the NorthMet project “meets the state’s standards for adequacy” will allow PolyMet, which is based in Toronto, Canada, to begin applying for some 20 federal, state and local permits for its mine, and for a processing facility in Hoyt Lakes.

Getting back to the Bent Paddle sideshow, the Duluth brewer is one of 70 local businesses making up the Downstream Business Coalition, which called on Gov. Mark Dayton to reject the PolyMet mine project.

The Pioneer Press reported, in late March, that the Silver Bay City Council is dealing with criticism over its split decision to remove Bent Paddle beer from the liquor store.

The fuss in Silver Bay “demonstrates all the things that are crazy about this situation,” responded Aaron Klemz, spokesperson for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of the many environmental groups that have been sounding the alarm about the perils of copper-nickel mining.

“It goes to show that even folks that take a step modestly in the direction of standing up for clean water, or opposing copper-nickel mining, are subject to disciplinary moves,” Klemz commented.
He noted that the owners of Bent Paddle have been “really articulate about why they’ve taken these actions, and why they’re opposed to PolyMet [bit.ly/bent-paddle]; and I think Silver Bay looks a little bit foolish in their response to it.”

The debate over copper-nickel mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region has pitted the foreign mining companies and their supporters against environmentalists, business owners and residents who argue that sulfide mining will be ruinous to the natural bounty Up North.

In the mixed bag of pronouncements last month, after the DNR signed off on the PolyMet mine, Gov. Dayton stated his opposition to another proposed copper-nickel project, the $2.8 billion Twin Metals underground mine near Birch Lake.

In a March 6 letter to Ian Duckworth, COO of Twin Metals Minnesota, Dayton expressed “grave concerns about the use of state surface lands for mining related activities in close proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).” Dayton let Duckworth know that the BWCAW “is a crown jewel in Minnesota and a national treasure.”

In closing, Dayton wrote: “I wish to inform you that I have directed the DNR not to authorize or enter into any new state access agreements or lease agreements for mining operations on those state lands.”

Also, on the day after Dayton’s letter, the U.S. Interior Department informed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that Twin Metals does not have an automatic right of renewal of the leases on federal lands, and the BLM has the discretion to grant or deny the company’s application. According to an Associated Press report, the Twin Metals leases, which were first issued in 1996, and last renewed in 2004, have expired. Thus, the Twin Metals project was dealt a double whammy in March.

And readers of The Circle should know that there has been little press attention to the role of Minnesota’s Ojibwe bands, as far as the DNR’s decision to let the PolyMet project roll on. Aaron Klemz mentioned that both the state and federal government have “legal obligations” to the bands, which retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the territories ceded in 19th century treaties. Simply put, mining ventures cannot be allowed to pollute tribal land and water resources. In the case of sulfide mining, there has been particular attention to the effect of sulfate pollution on wild rice beds; the issue remains unresolved.

Klemz added, “I do know that throughout the history of this process that the tribal resource agencies, as well as GLIFWC [Great Lake Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission], have been really frustrated with the response that they’ve gotten to their comments,” on the PolyMet environmental review.

In April, there will be a consultation between the U.S. Forest Service and representatives of the Ojibwe bands, prior to a Forest Service decision on the exchange of surface land for the PolyMet project, said Klemz. He stressed that, apart from Minnesota’s role, the federal agencies will have a big say in decisions on whether or not PolyMet gets final approval to mine.

Who will win the 2016 presidential vote in Indian country?
Tuesday, March 08 2016
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Bernie or Hillary?

On the GOP side, I’m sure that some Indians like what they are hearing from the five contenders still standing, as of late February. The Republicans inhabit a political continuum from daffy to dangerous; but different strokes for different folks, I guess.

For example, Donald Trump, an equal opportunity offender, seems to hate Indians because tribal casinos compete with his gaming operations. In 1993, Trump testified before House Native American Affairs subcommittee, which was investigating press reports on organized crime and policing in Indian casinos. “They don’t look like Indians to me,” said Trump, regarding the leaders of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation, which runs the lucrative Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. “They don’t look like Indians to Indians.”

According to a report in the Huffington Post last year: “Trump’s remarks went on for an hour, and included unsubstantiated allegations that the mafia had infiltrated Indian casinos. Many in Congress were shocked by Trump’s irresponsibility.”

Then there’s Ted Cruz, who recently has become the champion of the Sagebrush Rebellion in Nevada – Cliven Bundy and his comrades. In a recent 30-second TV spot, the ultra-right-wing Texas senator takes the side of those Nevadans, the Bundys and their ilk, who have been fomenting some kind of anti-federal uprising. “If you trust me with your vote, I will return full control of Nevada’s lands to its rightful owners, its citizens. Count on it,” Cruz proclaims.

“Count on it? Rightful owners? The whole Sagebrush Rebel narrative misses the point that tribes in the region have called the area home for more than 10,000 years and if there’s any claim to rightful ownership then it’s the first owners who have the rightful claim,” Mark Trahant recently responded on his blog (trahantreports.com).

Trahant, a distinguished journalist and member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, went on to mention that William Anderson, a former Moapa tribal chairman, asked Sen. Bernie Sanders about extending stronger federal protection to lands in Nevada, including Gold Butte, which the Nuwuvi, the Southern Paiutes, and others, would like to be classified as a national monument.

At an MSNBC Town Hall, Sanders responded positively to Anderson’s informed question about how the U.S. government could do more to stop corporations “from destroying Mother Earth.”

“I don’t have to explain to you, or I hope anybody in this room, or anybody watching the outrageous way, unfair way, that governments have treated Native Americans from day one,” Sanders responded. “It is a disgrace.”

Sanders is now running a TV commercial that proclaims his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking for natural gas, and promotes his vision of a shift to a “clean energy future.”

At the beginning of the Sanders spot, there’s a brief glimpse of Tara Houska, who was named as a Native American advisor to the Sanders campaign in late February. She will join Nicole Willis (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation) in writing a Native American policy platform and recruiting members for a policy advisory committee for the Vermont senator’s presidential campaign.

During a recent phone chat, Houska, who’s Ojibwe from the Couchiching First Nation (north of International Falls in Canada) mentioned that she spoke alongside Sanders at a Capitol Hill press conference last November. “That’s actually how I got involved in the campaign,” Houska commented. The press conference publicized Sanders’ sponsorship of the Keep It in the Ground Act, “which bans fossil fuel construction on public lands and waters, and stops Arctic drilling.”

As the national campaign director of Honor the Earth, the Indigenous environmental group founded by Winona LaDuke, Houska provided information on pressing environmental issues to Sanders’ Senate office. A graduate of the University of Minnesota and the U of M Law School, Houska also mentioned that she has been active in the campaign against Indian mascots and symbols in sports.

Regarding the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Houska noted that Sanders, in his congressional career, has made environmental justice and economic equity, reining in the influence of Wall Street, the “foundational cornerstones” of his politics.

“He is not afraid to recognize that climate change is, first of all, real, and second of all, that we have to do something about it in a very significant way,” she said.

Referring to the previously mentioned TV commercial, Houska pointed out that Sanders states that he is “against fracking, entirely… Hillary Clinton just came out in support of natural gas; that’s not indicative of a move away from fossil fuels to a green economy.”

Suppressing the Indian vote
Friday, February 05 2016
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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The passage of the Snyder Act of 1924, during the Calvin Coolidge administration, admitted American Indians born in the United States to full U.S. citizenship.

Under the Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, all U.S. citizens gained the right to vote regardless of race; but it wasn’t until more than 50 years later, with the Snyder Act, “that America’s native people could enjoy the rights granted by this amendment,” according to the Library of Congress. “Even with the passing of this citizenship bill Native Americans were still prevented from participating in elections mainly due to the fact that the Constitution left it up to the states to decide who has the right to vote.”

The article on the Library of Congress website points out that many “Native Americans suffered from the same mechanisms and strategies, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation, that kept African Americans from exercising that right. In 1965, with passage of the Voting Rights Act… protections for non-English speakers and other citizen voters were reaffirmed and strengthened.”

Fast forward to Jan. 20, 2016, when seven American Indian plaintiffs from North Dakota filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, under the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. and North Dakota constitutions, challenging North Dakota’s voter ID laws.

The plaintiffs, represented by attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), argue in the suit that “Native American voters are disproportionately burdened” by North Dakota’s 2013 and 2015 voter ID laws. The voter ID laws specify that only certain types of IDs are acceptable at polling places; and in many cases, tribal members do not possess IDs that meet the strict standards imposed by the new laws.

“The burdens are substantial for a number of Native Americans who cannot afford to drive to the nearest driver’s license site (‘DMV’),” NARF explained, in part, in a press release distributed last month. “There are no DMV locations on any Indian reservations in North Dakota, and for many Native Americans, a DMV location may be over 60 miles away. Many Native Americans live below the poverty line, and do not have dependable access to transportation or cannot afford travel to a distant DMV location.”
“As a veteran who served this country, I know how important it is to vote,” remarked Richard Brakebill, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “But I wasn’t permitted to vote in 2014, because my address wasn’t listed on my ID. That was very upsetting.”

The defendant in the lawsuit is Alvin Jaeger, “in his official capacity as the North Dakota Secretary of State.”

A Jan. 21 story in the Grand Forks Herald quotes Jaeger as saying that the North Dakota Legislature, in 2003, made tribal ID an acceptable form of voter ID, “but we’ll have to see what their concern is,” vis-à-vis the lawsuit. “The same requirements are for all North Dakota residents,” Jaeger told the newspaper.

However, Matthew Campbell, a NARF staff attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told me that prior to passage of the 2013 voter ID law, North Dakota allowed more forms of ID to be accepted at the polls.

“After 2013, [North Dakota] limited it to five forms of ID, and then just last year, they limited it to four,” Campbell said, during a telephone interview.

Also, prior to 2013, “if someone showed up [at the polling place] without their ID… if they had a problem voting, there was a fail-safe mechanism that would allow them to vote. There were two, actually: one was a voucher – a poll worker or an election board member could vouch that you were qualified and you lived in the precinct; or you could sign an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that you lived in the precinct and were qualified [to vote].”

After 2013, the fail-safe mechanisms were abolished, according to Campbell, and North Dakota also required “an ID with a physical residential address on it.” He explained that many tribal IDs lack a person’s street address.

The lawsuit seeking to stop “implementation and enforcement” of North Dakota’s voter ID laws mentions that the 2013 bill passed “essentially on a party-line vote.”

Campbell did not want to get into the politics of these voter suppression measures, but I will: A group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has pushed this kind of legislation across the U.S. The goal is to diminish the ability of blacks and other racial minorities, students, the disabled, and the elderly, to vote. More specifically, the Koch brothers are trying to suppress the vote for Democratic candidates.

Republicans in North Dakota apparently have implemented the ALEC approach to disenfranchise American Indians.

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