Political Matters
Mining and the Indian bands
Thursday, December 03 2015
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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The public has been invited to comment on the final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine south of Babbit, in northeastern Minnesota.
The report, which can be downloaded from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website is fairly huge – 263 MB, 3,576 pages; the chapter on environmental consequences from what is known officially as the NorthMet Mining Project and Land Exchange is 812 pages. There also is a 60-page executive summary available.
The summary document features some fairly impenetrable technical language; and the Minnesota Ojibwe bands that were designated as “cooperating agencies” in the environmental review process, which has been rolling along for the past 11 years, were mainly shut out of the NorthMet Final EIS, according to Nancy Schuldt, water protection coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Fond du Lac, along with the Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands, has been involved in the NorthMet mining project review, since the mine area and land exchange parcels are located within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory. The Ojibwe bands ceded these lands to the U.S. government in the 19th century, but reserved hunting, fishing and gathering rights. The Ojibwe bands have a federally-recognized interest in maintaining the health of the land and water for the survival of their future generations. Generally, the Indian bands have been concerned that sulfide mining, a new industry proposed for Minnesota, poses a serious environmental threat. The pollution of wild rice waters is just one of the possible adverse consequences from mining.

Getting back to the NorthMet Mining Project Final EIS, Nancy Schuldt told me that “there aren’t going to be any public hearings, and at this point we don’t apparently have any more public standing than the general public.”

Schuldt pointed out that there have been additional tribal scientific analyses done to support “our positions of dissent about what’s been presented for this project, and the co-lead agencies declined to include those in the [Final] EIS.” She added that both the Draft EIS, in 2009, and the Supplemental Draft EIS, in 2013, included footnotes and appendices detailing the tribal research – “supporting information” – and “major differences of opinion.”

However, the co-lead agencies responsible for the NorthMet Final EIS – the Minnesota DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service – “didn’t allow us to elaborate and add any new information or supporting evidence, or even present our perspective on whether those major differences of opinion still remained, or were there some more… which there are,” said Schuldt.

She said that the only nod to the Ojibwe bands, the so-called “cooperating agencies,” was allowing them to see the preliminary version of the Final EIS this past summer.
After the Minnesota DNR approves the EIS adequacy for the NorthMet project, the operators still have to obtain a variety of permits before they can start digging for ore. The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also have to issue decisions on the project.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who has professed a neutral position on the proposed copper-nickel mine, recently toured what was characterized as a bad mine, the Gilt Edge gold mine in South Dakota’s Black Hills, which is now a Superfund site, and a good mine, the Eagle Mine, an underground copper-nickel mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Nancy Schuldt mentioned that Keweenaw Bay Indian Community officials wanted to meet with Dayton when he visited the UP, but the governor did not take the meeting.

“Subsequently, [Dayton] had his commissioners, the DNR and MPCA commissioners, and his mining liaison… he had them conference with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community to talk about the tribe’s experience with that mine.”

After the consultation with the Keweenaw Bay leaders, according to Schuldt, the Michigan tribe sent a message back to Gov. Dayton and his commissioners suggesting that they also reach out to the tribal cooperating agencies with the PolyMet project.

Dayton has expressed his view that PolyMet Mining must provide adequate financial assurance to cover reclamation costs before a Permit to Mine is issued. And in November, Dayton discussed the need for the state Health Department to conduct a review of health risks from the proposed NorthMet project.

Perhaps Gov. Dayton also should invite concerned officials from Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage to a meeting in St. Paul.

“We are a constituency of the governor’s that he has completely declined to engage with over this project,” said Schuldt, regarding the Indian bands that are being sidelined as the PolyMet project gains traction.

Canada and the First Nations
Tuesday, November 03 2015
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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In the Canadian elections last month, the Liberals swept away the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, 43, will become the new Canadian premier.
The elections also ushered in 10 indigenous MPs (Members of Parliament), out of a field of 54 Native candidates across Canada. One of the Aboriginal (Indian) victors, Liberal MP-elect Robert-Falcon Ouellette, in the riding (district) of Winnipeg Centre, told CTV News: “In the city of Winnipeg, and right across this country, so many First Nations children are in care of the state and they’re not with their families, and there are things we can be doing about that.”

Ouellette said that 89 percent of Indigenous children are not in care of the state because of abuse; rather, the problem is poverty, “the inability of parents to provide good housing and good food for their children.” The Liberal MP-elect also cited the need to address the educational needs of Native children, and the dire reality of “murdered and missing indigenous women.”

Trying to understand what the Liberal victory means for First Nations people in Canada, I contacted two of the founders of Idle No More, the Indigenous sovereignty movement that began in Canada and came to global prominence, in 2012.

In an email interview, Jessica Gordon, one of the four women who founded Idle No More, told me that past Canadian governments have had “unfavorable and oppressive policies regarding Indigenous rights and sovereignty. Justin Trudeau, leading the Liberals in this newly-formed government, should be taken with a grain of salt; because, as we know, corporations and money are much more influential than someone with a big heart and good intentions.”

Gordon noted that Justin Trudeau’s father, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, said, regarding Indigenous people in Canada: “If you no longer speak your language and no longer practice your culture, then you have no right to demand aboriginal rights from us, because you are assimilated with the ruling power.”

As to the elder Trudeau’s assertion, Gordon said, “We can take this as the reality of the belief of any government, or we can take this as a challenge. Yes, we have a horrible history of genocide and because of this, we do not all speak our language or practice our culture. To be self-determined we cannot rely on anyone but ourselves to prove this quote wrong, although in the spirit of reconciliation and Treaty, the government has a moral and legal obligation to see this happen as easily and swiftly as possible.”

She added, “Justin Trudeau has an opportunity now to not only reconcile the sins of his father and previous/ongoing genocide, but also show that he and other settlers have learned from their ancestors’ mistakes.”

There was a high Native turnout at the polls in Canada, according to press reports. But Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum), an Idle No More co-founder, didn’t participate. In a phone interview from her home in the Treaty 6 First Nations – “two and half hours north of Saskatoon, in what is now known as Saskatchewan” – McAdam expressed deep pessimism about the new Liberal government.
I mentioned attending survival gatherings, in 1980 and 1981, in Pinehouse, a tiny Cree village in northern Saskatchewan. The gatherings hosted by local residents and American Indian Movement (AIM) activists tried to organize popular opposition to uranium mining, specifically, the Key Lake mine, which eventually was developed.

“The situation has gotten worse,” McAdam said.

As far as the Liberals coming to power, she commented: “You know, that’s a loaded question. I’m not saying that you’re not genuine, but if you genuinely want to know about what it’s done, being assimilated into the colonizer’s system, you can take a look at the loss of language; the loss of indigenous knowledge; the increased devastation to the land and water on our lands… We’re more assimilated today than we ever have been.”

Voting in the “colonizer’s system is devastating,” in McAdam’s view. The Canadian federal government “continuously” violates the treaty “terms and promises” made with the First Nations, “and it’s getting worse and worse as the years go by, and more and more indigenous people are forgetting about that. I didn’t vote. I’m what you’d call a ‘sovereigntist,’ in the English language; in my language, I’m known as a person who defends and protects the land, because without the land we’re finished, we’re finished as a people.”

The Harper government was largely reviled by the First Nations people, which is more than four percent of Canada’s population. Obviously, Indigenous opinion is mixed about what the Liberals can do to remediate social inequities in Canada.

Treaty rights today
Friday, October 02 2015
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Treaty rights today I’ve been thinking about the upsurge in Indian activism over recent years. The sudden rise of the Idle No More movement – which began in Canada and swept through the Western Hemisphere – was quite a surprise, as a new generation of activists made their presence, and grievances, known.

Young Indians, along with graying American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders who brought Indian issues to the world more than four decades ago, also have spearheaded a renewed movement to stop the exploitation of Indian culture and religion by professional sports teams. Thousands of Indians and their allies marched to TCF Bank Stadium on the U of M campus, on Nov. 2, 2014, to protest the continuing racist slur propounded by the NFL’s Washington franchise.

And tribal leaders and activists have been an important factor in the popular resistance to the continuous assault on the land from oil and gas interests, and multinational mining firms. In Minnesota, for example, the White Earth Nation, along with environmental groups, has campaigned against the Sandpiper Pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the Bakken oil field in No. Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin. The project received approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC); but in September the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a full environmental impact review had to be completed before moving ahead with a certificate of need proceeding.

In the case of proposed copper-nickel mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, the concept of Indian sovereignty provides a legal framework for protecting the natural environment. Specifically, reserved rights to hunt, fish and gather on lands ceded in 19th century treaties between Indian nations and the United States provide the legal underpinning to tribal intervention

When I started as journalist in Indian Country, in the late-1970s, I was fortunate to meet a number of elders who carried knowledge of the lifeways of their peoples: Phillip Deere, of the Muscogee Nation (Oklahoma), David Sohappy, of the Wanapum Band of the Yakama Nation (Washington), and many others.

I also had the good luck to meet Vine Deloria, Jr., of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (So. Dakota). Deloria, a former executive director of National Congress of American Indians, made Indian sovereignty and culture comprehensible to a wide audience through his books, including Custer Died for Your Sins, God Is Red, Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties and The Nations Within (with Clifford Lytle).

In God Is Red, for example, Deloria explains that the lands on which people resided gave birth to the religions that arose: “The chance that lands would be lost meant that religious communities would be destroyed and individual identities forsaken. As sacred mountains became secularized, as tribal burial grounds became cornfields, as tribes no longer lived on the dust of their ancestors’ bones, the people knew that they could not survive.”

In the 19th century treaties between Indian nations and the U.S. government, Indian leaders recognized that an irresistible wave of European immigrants was flooding the land; and, as they relinquished their ancestral land to the new nation, they had the wisdom to reserve their rights to sustenance within the ceded territories.

Of course, after treating with the Indians, the U.S. government often engaged in double-dealing; the U.S., broke treaties at its whim. Such was the case with 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, between the U.S. and the Great Sioux Nation and Arapaho. In 1874, General George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills, accompanied by miners looking for gold. And when gold miners usurped the Sioux hunting grounds, they demanded protection from the Army. Things came to a head at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn), in 1876.

I happened to be at an Indian gathering in Montana, the 1980 International Indian Treaty Conference, an AIM-led annual summer forum, when the Indian Claims Commission announced that the Sioux would be compensated for violations of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty – with money. A sum of $105 million was awarded; and I was startled to see the Lakota people gathered on the Fort Belknap reservation react to the news of the settlement with anger and with tears.

So I learned that, along with the land, the treaties are sacred, at least to the heirs of the Indians who negotiated these contracts, which take supremacy over all other laws, according to the U.S. Constitution.

I’m not a treaty law expert, but I know that treaty rights have been upheld by the Supreme Court; and this acknowledgment of Indian sovereignty will continue to play a useful role in efforts to beat back energy development schemes and extractive industries that threaten the survival of Indian nations, and of the earth’s ability to sustain life for coming generations of humans and other living creatures.

Political Matters
Thursday, September 03 2015
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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On Aug. 5, a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was excavating an old leaking mine in Colorado, when workers using a backhoe were surprised by a deluge that came pouring out. Some three million gallons of waste water from the abandoned Gold King Mine spilled into Cement Creek and then into the Animas River.

An article on the Accuweather Web site noted that the plume of toxic water deposited “dangerous metals, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury along hundreds of miles [of waterways] through three states.”
The City of Durango and La Plata County reportedly declared states of emergency. The spill turned the Animas River a sickly ochre shade and made its way south to the Navajo Nation, where farmers in the northern part of the reservation face ruin, with a ban on using river water for crops and livestock. “Thousands of acres of farmland could dry up, and hundreds of families could see their primary source of income disappear,” according to New Times, a Phoenix newspaper.

 Of course, it’s ironic that the EPA caused this environmental disaster. But I wondered about the implications for a proposed copper-nickel mining project near Hoyt Lakes, in northeastern Minnesota. In numerous columns about PolyMet Mining’s copper-nickel mine (the NorthMet Project), I’ve noted that hard rock mining in the West has a miserable record in terms of polluting groundwater and surface waters. Many mining firms have gone bust and left the public on the hook to clean up the messes they made.
So, does the Gold King Mine disaster foretell what Minnesota might experience with the advent of copper-nickel mining?

“It’s pretty different,” said John Coleman, environmental section leader for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), which provides natural resource management expertise, conservation enforcement and legal and policy analysis to 11 Ojibwe bands in Minnesota,Wisconsin and Michigan.

“That was primarily gold mining,” he added during a recent telephone conversation. “I mean, it’s a lot of the same geochemical processes that generate contaminants; but every mine site is different.”

Regarding the “same geochemical processes,” Coleman points out that PolyMet, with its planned open pit mine, would be “digging into sulfur-containing rock, and that will generate acid and release heavy metals – and there’s a lot of water. So there are a lot of similarities.”

He concludes, as far as the Gold King “containment and remediation effort” that went bad, that PolyMet’s project presents “a different scenario than what you have in Colorado.”

This question was one part of our phone chat; I called Coleman mainly to discuss what’s called the Preliminary Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the NorthMet project. And while waiting to connect with him, the Timberjay, the Iron Range newspaper, put out a story that seems to seriously undermine one crucial aspect of the EIS.

The issue is loaded with hard to understand technical terminology; but, basically, the environmental review process – a collaboration among the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – botched the model for determining water flow through the area of the proposed mine, in the view of GLIFWC’s Coleman.

In a June 18 letter to agency managers responsible for the NorthMet EIS, Coleman wrote: “Since before 2008, GLIFWC staff have consistently raised concerns about the quality and validity of the groundwater modeling at the mine site. Most recently it has come to our attention that the mine site MODFLOW model was incorrectly calibrated and unlikely to provide the hydrologic characterization of the site that is needed in order to perform adequate project impact evaluations.”

The EIS has looked at a flow of water to the south of the project; but Coleman has pointed out that contaminants from the mine likely would run north, into the Peter Mitchell pits, a series of taconite pits that were used by Northshore Mining. The pits are located high on the Laurentian Divide, where water either runs south, toward the Gulf of Mexico, or north, to Hudson Bay.

This area of concern raised by GLIFWC should be addressed in the final EIS, which is due for release in November. “We feel that [the EIS] shouldn’t be released until they get some analysis done on what the impacts might be from contaminants going north toward Birch Lake,” Coleman said, who added, “There are a lot of implications related to things like dewatering and wetlands; but they’ve been very reluctant to look at interaction between this PolyMet project and the adjacent taconite mine.”

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