Mining bill sparks battle to save 'greatest lake'

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In this AP file photo, the sun rises over the Kakagon Sloughs on the Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin. -Photo: Tom Lynn/AP

UPDATED - Northern Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills region is a place of rare natural beauty – a pristine wilderness of woodlands and wetlands crisscrossed with streams and waterfalls.

The water that flows from the hills is a primary source for Lake Superior. The cleanest of the Great Lakes, Superior contains 10 percent of all the planet’s fresh surface water.

That water also feeds regional wild-rice beds that are a major food source and central to the spirituality of local Native Americans.

The GOP push

The mining bill first surfaced last year, when the vote on it was almost entirely along party lines. Only one vote – that of independent Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of southwestern Wisconsin – prevented the bill from becoming law.

This session, however, Republican redistricting netted the party a significant majority in the Assembly as well as a two-vote advantage in the Senate. Opponents of the mining bill claim the GOP has flaunted that advantage by sidestepping the usual public input process for the legislation. Only one listening session has been held, a 12-hour event that took place on Jan. 23 at the Capitol, far from the area that would be impacted by the mine.

Democrats have since proposed their own measure, one that reinstates environmental protections. Under growing pressure and responding to persuasive arguments by the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups, some Republicans had indicated they were willing to incorporate elements of the Democrats’ proposal into theirs.

But at Feb. 6 legislative committee meetings, GOP leaders in Madison adopted only a few minor changes that were branded nothing more than "window dressing" by Democratic opponents. One new GOP proposal was the offer to create wetlands elsewhere in the state if the mine destroyed surrounding ones – a proposal that bewildered environmentalists as well as the people in the region who would be impacted by the addition of aresenic, lead and other toxins to their water supply.

GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the GOP's bill will pass the Legislature by the end of the first week in March. But the bill could face a new round of hurdles if fails to comply with federal regulations.

A ruse

Republicans contend their only reason for trying to pass the bill so quickly and without more study is to help spur job creation. They say the fast-track schedule has been prompted by economic urgency rather than an effort to circumvent public input.

Gov. Scott Walker, who was voted into office on the promise of creating 250,000 jobs in Wisconsin, is expected to fall far short of that goal when he runs for re-election in 2014. In fact, his record is one of the worst in the nation. His supporters say his insistence on speeding up the mining approval process and relaxing groundwater, wetland, waste rock disposal and other environmental rules reflects his eagerness to bring good jobs to Wisconsin. They say his haste and enthusiasm have nothing to do with the $11.34 million he’s received from businesses that support mining deregulation, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

But critics claim the job argument is a ruse. 

The project’s proponents claim the first mining phase will last 35 years and create 700 direct mining jobs.

However opponents contend most of the workers will come from Cline Resource and Development, Gogebic’s parent company, owned by billionaire Chris Cline of Palm Beach, Fla. Opponents say the mine realistically has the potential to create fewer than 100 local jobs. 

Toxic waste

In addition to softening pollution protections, the Republicans’ mining bill would streamline the state’s mining approval process in general, which could have a damaging effect on the state’s environment for generations to come, according to its critics.

More than 20 perennial streams flow through the proposed mining area, according to a study published by Tom Fitz, associate professor of geoscience at Northland College in Ashland. Many of those streams have been designated as exceptional or outstanding resource waters by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

Fitz and others are concerned about the potential impact the mine might have on the flow as well as the chemistry of the groundwater and surface water that spreads from the mining area. That area is full of pyrites and other sulfur-bearing minerals, which could send acid mine drainage down the Bad River, the Tyler Forks River, and other rivers that spill into Lake Superior.

“We’re not opposed to mining, but our job is to look out for water in the state,” says Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “We want to make sure that when citizens go to the tap and pour out a glass of water, it’s not going to be laced with arsenic and lead.”

Cut out

McCabe and others are outraged by Republicans’ efforts to exclude the people in the region, particularly the nearby Native American population, from the debate over  mining regulation changes.

“They cut the people out of the process,” McCabe says. “Two-thirds of the mine site will be in Ashland County, and all of the water will drain through Ashland County. The tribes are situated in Ashland County. But they’ve never had a hearing in Ashland County.”

In fact, the proposed mining legislation was released on Jan. 16. Then, on Jan. 18, Republican leadership announced that a hearing would be held in Madison on Jan. 23. 

Because the announcement came at the beginning of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, McCabe and others interested in addressing legislators about the bill were left with only Jan. 22 to organize a presence at the Capitol. 

“We essentially had eight working hours for people to ask for a day off, to arrange for childcare and to get themselves to Madison from Ashland,” he says. “Despite all the requests from the many citizens and papers editorializing up there around the bill, that was the only hearing scheduled.”

A busload of people went from Ashland County to Madison for the chance to confront lawmakers. According to McCabe, about 100 of the people who showed up to speak were denied. Those who did address lawmakers complained that the time allotted for their questions was very limited.

About half the people on the bus were Ojibwes, members of the Bad River and Red Cliff bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa, says Matt Dannenberg, central Wisconsin organizer for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. 

“The Bad River band is quite literally downstream from where the proposed mining operation would be,” Dannenberg says.

The Bad River could transport toxic waste from the mining operation into the Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs, which was recognized last year as a “Wetland of International Importance.” The sloughs are considered to be Wisconsin’s version of the Florida Everglades.

Wild rice

In addition to purifying the water that runs into Lake Superior, the wetlands are home to the wild rice that’s part of the origin story and spirituality of the region’s indigenous people. “It’s like their communion,” Dannenberg explains.

Wild rice is highly susceptible to changes in water level and composition. According to Dannenberg, taconite mining on Michigan’s upper peninsula and in Minnesota has caused environmental damage that has destroyed wild rice beds.

“In Minnesota, it’s caused a dead zone in the St. Louis River,” he says. “Wild rice can no longer grow there. Federal agencies are trying to figure out how to reintroduce the wild rice and reclaim the damage that was done.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is currently looking into whether the state violated treaties in drafting the mining rules without consulting with local tribes. A 1983 Supreme Court ruling known as the Voigt Decision upheld the rights of tribes to be included in decisions involving areas outside their reservation boundaries that affect their land and way of life.

In addition to opposition from Ashland County’s indigenous people, nearby communities that rely on tourism are also opposed to the softening of mining regulations. 

“I feel very strongly that anything that takes a risk in endangering Lake Superior is not the right bill,” says Bayfield Mayor Larry MacDonald. Home of the popular Bayfield Apple Festival, the town depends on tourism for 90 percent of its economic activity, MacDonald estimates.

“The majority of people up here are in favor of anything that has to do with economic development,” MacDonald says. But after looking at the bill and listening to conservationists’ concerns, he decided that regulations “need to be as restrictive as they can … to make it as safe as possible for the environment.”

“People can be pro-mining and still be against this bill,” he says. “If we lose Lake Superior and any form of fish, we’ve lost the economy in this pat of Wisconsin. … This is the greatest of all the Great Lakes.”

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