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POLITICAL MATTERS: Native Issues In The Halls of Government
Thursday, September 05 2013
 
Written by Mordecai Spektor,
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Gogebic Taconite’s scheme

Over the past three years, I’ve been sounding the alarm about the mining juggernaut rolling through the forests of northeastern Minnesota. A number of multinational corporations  – most notably, Polymet Mining and Duluth Metals – are in the exploratory stage of extracting copper-nickel and precious metals, a new type of mining in Minnesota. These projects have the potential to seriously foul surface water and groundwater with sulfate pollution from the mining process, as has happened across the western United States.

Since some of the tracts being explored fall within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, the Ojibwe bands in northern Minnesota have an interest in how this industrial development proceeds. The Fond du Lac band, for example, has been involved in the environmental review process, and band environmental officials have expressed concern that effluents from sulfide mining could damage wild rice beds. In the context of the 1854 Treaty, the Ojibwe bands ceded their ancestral territory to the U.S. government, but reserved their rights to hunt, fish and gather for subsistence purposes. These reserved rights could be endangered by the detrimental environmental effects of sulfide mining.

A similar struggle has emerged to the east in Wisconsin, where the Republican-dominated state government has colluded with Gogebic Taconite Mining (GTac), which proposes to build “what could become the largest open-pit iron-ore mine in the world,” according to the Wisconsin John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club.


GTac has purchased mineral rights to a vast swathe, some 21,000 acres, of the Penokee Range in Ashland and Iron counties, in northwestern Wisconsin. The proposed open-pit mine would be 4.5 miles long, 1.5 miles wide and up to 1,000 feet deep.
“Although [GTac] claimed to have no interest in circumventing Wisconsin’s safe-guard mining laws, they ended up working behind the scenes for months to gut the same mining laws that they supposedly were not interested in changing,” the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club states on their website. A mining bill signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker [AB 426] demolished environmental safeguards related to mining, eliminated public input, reduced revenues to local reduced revenues to local communities, and rushed the permit review process.”

GTac and the state of Wisconsin apparently are also running roughshod over the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The Bad River reservation is located just north of the proposed mine.


“Our relationship with the mining company has been nil to non-existent,” said Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins, regarding GTac’s proposed mine. “As a sovereign nation, we are not dealing with a corporation. As a sovereign nation we are looking at the state to do the right thing and we are also looking to the federal government to intervene in this situation.”


In an interview last year with WI Voices (wivoices.org), a nonprofit civic journalism group, Wiggins explained that the “essence” of tribal concerns “are centered in water.” He points out that the U.S. Geological Survey has determined that the Penokee Mountains are the “recharge station for the underground water aquifers that are underneath our reservation and are ultimately Lake Superior. The mountain top removal, a 1,000-foot pit, has the potential to contaminate ground water…. The water that our people are drinking in Odanah and on our reservation is on a 50-year recharge cycle starting in the Penokee Mountains. And from a ground water perspective, that is non-negotiable.”


The Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter states that the GTac mine has the potential to contaminate air and water in northern Wisconsin with “mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals, sulfates, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides…. Mining companies in Minnesota have faced serious issues with getting rid of the waste water from taconite mining plants. However, attempting to release recycled waste water into waterways around mining facilities can cause many problems for the surrounding aquatic environments.”
Increased mercury levels in waste water, for example, “bioaccumulate in fish populations, and thus, endanger consumers who eat the fish,” according to the Sierra Club.


So, the Indian tribes are concerned about an environmental catastrophe from mining without proper safeguards, courtesy of the Walker administration. And the non-Indians in Dairyland aren’t pleased either.


On Aug. 15, dozens of people spoke out against the plan for the iron ore mine in the Penokees, during a hearing in the Hurley High School gym, according to an Associated Press report. Gogebic Taconite is asking the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for permission to remove 4,000 tons of rock for testing.


“Most of the people testifying were individuals representing themselves. They expressed concerned about polluting the Bad River and Lake Superior watershed, and the possibility of asbestos-like fibers in the rock,” reported Wisconsin Public Radio, which also noted that mining and business groups were “noticeably absent” at the hearing.


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