Michigan mine threatens Menominee Nation’s sacred sites

By Al Gedicks

Imagine an open pit mine deeper than the height of Wisconsin’s tallest building, Milwaukee’s U.S. Bank tower. The depth of that pit, a mere 150 feet from the Menominee River (a major Lake Michigan tributary that forms the Wisconsin-Michigan border and flows into Green Bay) would exceed 700 feet. The pit would be 2,000 feet wide and 2,500 feet long. That would be the enormous size of the controversial open pit gold and zinc sulfide mine recently given preliminary approval by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The proposed Back Forty mine project has special significance for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin because it is their original tribal homeland. The Menominee reservation is 60 miles southwest of the proposed mine. The tribe is concerned about pollution of the Menominee River and the destruction of sacred sites. Similar concerns about harm to water supplies and the destruction of sacred sites have resulted in massive tribal and environmental protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline next to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.

Multiple burial sites and mounds sacred to the Menominee are within the footprint of the Back Forty mine. Joan Delabreau, Menominee tribal chairwoman, said she was “sickened” by the DEQ’s decision and promised that her tribe “has and will continue to fight to protect any land within our ancestral territory that contains the remains of our Ancestors and our cultural resources.”

The Archaeological Investigation Report for the proposed mine identified several archaeological sites that are likely to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The federal government is required to consult with tribes in the identification of historic properties under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

However, because Michigan is one of only two states that has been delegated authority under the Clean Water Act, the mine application process is subject only to state permits. Michigan DEQ is not required to consult with the tribe or comply with the provisions of NHPA. David Grignon, Menominee tribal historic preservation officer, says that the federal government can delegate CWA authority to Michigan but cannot delegate the trust responsibility to protect the tribe’s cultural resources.

A possible solution to the lack of federal protection under NHPA is recent Michigan legislation (Act 247) that calls for a “master plan to promote and preserve the history of Native Americans in Michigan” including “the making of applications for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.” However, the effective date of this legislation is Sept. 22.

Why is DEQ in such a rush to grant preliminary approval for the Back Forty mine project? The scientific studies necessary to evaluate the impact of the mine on wetlands and the Menominee River are incomplete. A final permit cannot be granted until all the studies are completed and there is a public hearing. Is DEQ afraid to allow the Menominee Tribe an opportunity to submit an application to preserve its cultural resources for fear it will delay a final mine permit for Canada-based Aquila Resources?

On Sept. 21, the Menominee Nation will lead a “Walk for the Sacred Water Where Our Wild Rice Grows” from the Menominee reservation to the proposed mine site. The “Remembering Our Ancestors Gathering” will take place the next day at the boat landing on the Menominee River, about 100 yards north of Aquila’s field office. Despite DEQ’s preliminary approval, this mine project is hardly a done deal.

Al Gedicks of La Crosse is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and emeritus professor of environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.