Open-pit mine an offense against the land

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You might think it’s a little early to be talking about Earth Day 2014, since the annual event is held on April 22.

But I noticed that the Nelson Center on the UW-Madison campus already is sending out publicity for its Earth Day programming, so I thought I’d get out early and begin a discussion now about what would be the best, most comprehensive focus for Earth Day this year in Wisconsin.

There are many possibilities, from the impact of climate change on Great Lakes water levels to a Republican-engineered shift of public water control to private interests. But there is no more compelling environmental issue in the state than the proposed open-pit iron ore mine that would spread across Iron and Ashland counties in northwest Wisconsin’s Bad River watershed.

The largest proposed open-pit iron ore mine in the country — 4.5 miles long, up to a half-mile wide and 700 feet deep in its first stage — the mine would wreak environmental damage on a massive scale. The surrounding Penokee Hills would be scraped clean, dynamited, trucked and milled for ore, with millions of tons of waste rock and crushed vegetation dumped on thousands of acres of land, including public space. This would jeopardize air quality and risk causing acid mine drainage into the Bad River and the many nearby lakes and streams.

The proposed mining site is just upriver from the Bad River Reservation, where the Ojibwe band has been sustained for centuries by wild rice beds that depend on constant clean water.

The mine should be the focus of Earth Day attention and activism because the measure authorizing this offense against the land was written behind closed doors with the participation of GTac, the iron-mining company that intends to open the mine. Preliminary drilling and rock sampling are already underway.

The bill authorizing the mine has so many sweetheart provisions, such as fast-tracked permit reviews, that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said it cannot participate in a joint state/federal permit process. Citizens without the clout of corporate lobbyists and big treasuries cannot legally intervene until after a permit decision by the DNR already has been made.

The damage from the mine would fall most directly and harmfully on the Bad River tribe, a relatively small and economically stressed band that thought it had won permanent protections for its water rights by ceding most of its land to the U.S. government under 19th century treaties.

That deal helped achieve Wisconsin’s admission to the Union and created the state’s forest-based economy. Now it has been essentially put up for sale by a Legislature and a governor in thrall to special interests and donors who would literally bury the band’s treaty rights, streams and lakes — and bury Article IX of the Wisconsin State Constitution, which guarantees free access to water in the state for everyone.

Stopping the mine is more than an environmental issue. It’s a matter of standing up for open government, fair legislating, public resource protection and justice for the Bad River Ojibwe.

The mine is the single, most-encompassing environmental justice matter facing Wisconsin, and it is the natural focal point for Earth Day 2014 activities.

Jim Rowen is a veteran reporter and political consultant. You can follow his blog The Political Environment at thepoliticalenvironment.blogspot.com.