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Iron Mining: An Issue of Environmental Justice
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What’s Being Proposed?
Gogebic Taconite (G-Tac), a subsidiary of The Cline Group, has proposed a 4 ½-mile long open pit iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills of Northern Wisconsin. This would be the first phase of an eventual 22-mile strip of open-pit mining, stretching from west of Mellen, in southern Ashland County, to Upson, in Iron County. The land is privately-held managed forest land, 35 square miles of rugged and unbroken north woods habitat, a migration corridor and natural carbon sink.
A February, 2012 report suggests that over a 35 year life span, the mine would ship 25% more ore than the everything taken out of Gogebic Range mines between 1880 and 1966, with waste rock that could form a hill 500 feet high and 1.5 miles long (the size of Rib Mountain), and tailings that, if stacked evenly over 3,750 acres of land leased by G-Tac from Iron County, would be 47 feet deep. A separate geological study by Lawrence University researchers found that the first phase of the mine alone would produce 2.5 billion pounds of sulfur from pyrite (iron sulfide) in the waste rock, which would produce sulfuric acid and sulfates when exposed to air and water. The acid mine drainage would leach other heavy metals present in the waste rock, including arsenic, copper, mercury, and zinc. The waste rock is also laced with phosphorous, a major water pollutant.
What’s at stake?
The mine area is at the headwaters of the Tyler Forks and Bad Rivers, which flow north into the Bad River Indian Reservation and empty into Lake Superior at the Kakagon Sloughs, the largest wetlands on Lake Superior and a major source of wild rice for the Bad River Anishinaabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) Tribe. The potential mining zone impacts more than 50 miles of streams and rivers, many of them designated trout streams. It is in the recharge zone of the Penokee Aquifer, which many residents rely on for clean drinking water. Mining would transform the area from forested hills to an industrial strip, with heavy machinery, truck traffic, deep pits, and waste rock piles hundreds of feet high.
Iron Mining: What's the Record?
Thanks to a twenty-year grassroots struggle by a coalition of environmental organizations, sportsmen’s groups, and Native American tribes in Wisconsin, in 1998 the state passed a law (signed by then-governor Tommy Thompson) prohibiting sulfide mining in the state until mining companies can show an example of an environmentally safe sulfide mine. To date, one has never been found. Sulfide mining targets minerals like copper, lead, zinc, gold, and silver that are contained in sulfide ores, which generate sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. But G-Tac’s proposal is for an iron mine, not a sulfide mine, and thus doesn’t fall under the perview of
Michigan's Tilden Mine. Photo by Rick Anderson.
However, iron mining isn’t “safe” either. Downstream from
The communities of the
Defending Their Homes
Native American reservations have been disproportionately impacted by mining and often treated as lawless zones by mining corporations. Environmental Racism occurs when historically oppressed peoples (like Native Americans) have their living conditions degraded disproportionately to wealthier, white communities. The voices of these peoples get ignored by industrial corporations and the government officials they fund or influence. Environmental Justice is what people in solidarity with the oppressed can demand of corporations and their elected officials.
The Bad River Ojibwe Tribe opposes the Penokee Mine and has been pro-active in fighting to defend the land and water. The EPA recently approved a new set of tribal water quality standards that prohibit any projects upstream from polluting waters flowing into their reservation. They are seeking Class 1 Air Quality designation, which would further federally protect their region from mining. Finally, the Tribe released a set of ten principles for any changes to mining laws, that would protect the environment and cultural resources for future generations:
1. Exclude any project proposal that has the potential to cause acid mine drainage.
2. The burden of preparing and submitting a complete application should be entirely on the permit applicant.
3. Provide adequate time for the DNR, the public, federal agencies, and affected Indian tribes to fully review and participate in the process.
4. Maintain existing wetland protection standards and the federal/state partnership in the environmental review process.
5. Correct, don’t weaken, the DNR’s federal Clean Water Act implementation.
6. Allow contested case hearings with full participation by citizens, including Indian tribes.
8. Allow citizen suits to make sure permit provisions and legal restrictions on new mines will be enforced.
9. Require consultation with Indian tribes by the DNR as part of the permitting process.
10. Contested case hearings should be paid for by the permit applicant or the state.
Bad River watershed is a Wisconsin gem and pristine environmental resource, and the Band’s cultural identity and way of life is highly dependent upon maintaining the health and integrity of the watershed.”
Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Bad River
“This is our land. This is where we live. We can't just pack up and move."
Tribal Councilor Frank Connors Bad River
On March 11, 2013, Governor Scott Walker signed AB 1, the open-pit mining bill written by lawyers for Gogebic taconite and paid for with $15.6 million in pro-mine campaign contributions, into law. This ecocidal legislation comes as a body blow to the rights of the Bad River Ojibwe and everyone else in the state to clean water and a sustainable local economy. It prioritizes the ability of a billionaire-owned mining company to make a profit over public health and environmental safety. But the fight is far from over, with people around the state mobilizing to challenge the new law and any formal mining application in court and in public. Donations will be urgently needed to cover the cost of upcoming lawsuits.
What Can You Do?
- Sign the Pledge to Defend the Bad River Watershed from Open Pit Mining.
- Donate to the Bad River Tribe's Legal Defense Fund.
- Hold an educational fundraiser in your community to raise awareness and money for lawsuits against the new iron mining law.
- Print and distribute WNPJ brochures on the Penokee Mine
- Join WNPJ’s Environment Work Group – contact email@example.com
- Visit the area to see for yourself what’s at stake.
- Write a letter to the editor about your visit (or write one even if you don’t visit). Click here for a letter-writing guide.