Anti-Mining Struggles in the Penokee Hills and Lake Superior Region
By Sarah Tops
Open water stretches for miles to the north, and a soft, cool breeze whips your hair into your eyes. The hardwood forest opens behind you to a pale sand beach into which you sink your toes. Gulls laugh and a single piping plover searches for mollusks amongst the gentle lapping waves. The rough outline of a commercial tug can be made out through the sea haze. No, you’re not on the east or west coast. This is the northern coast, often overlooked by most Americans, but not Midwesterners. The inland seas, our Great Lakes, have been an inspiration and way of life for generations up here.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, covering an area the size of South Carolina. Its sloughs and shorelines contain rich wild rice beds and its waters over 80 species of fish. The Lake Superior region, spanning Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, as well as Ontario to the north, has been home to the Ojibwe people for over two hundred years, and before then, the Dakota and Huron. However, like most of America’s beautiful, natural places, it, too, is under threat of destruction and poisoning by industrial civilization.
Since the late 1800s, the Lake Superior region has suffered from large-scale iron mining operations, supplying over three-fourths of the nation’s iron ore. The land was stripped of this resource half a century ago, but with current rising prices of iron and other minerals surrounding Lake Superior, mining companies are going back to dig out the dregs, a low-grade iron ore called taconite. Communities in the upper Midwest have been affected by air and water pollution as well as poverty associated with the boom-bust cycle of resource extraction. In the past several decades, however, Wisconsin has become a stronghold against large mining operations due to a mining moratorium law passed in 1998 after a prolonged struggle against sulfide mining that began in the 1970s. Now, Wisconsin’s strong environmental laws are being rewritten by a new administration working hand-in-hand with mining companies.
This story probably sounds pretty familiar to you – you see the same devastation of unique and special habitat when it comes to fracking in the Northeast, mountaintop removal in Appalachia, or the tar sands in Alberta. Not only is the immediate area of extraction affected by destruction of the landscape, but air and water is poisoned for miles. The invasion of roads, processing plants, and waste disposal sites associated with such operations require their own resources and spew out their own pollution. Many of the same companies are responsible for this environmental destruction and community destitution. One example of such a company that now threatens Lake Superior is the Cline Group, which owns coal mines in Appalachia and Illinois and has created a subsidiary called Gogebic Taconite (GTac) which has set its bull’s-eye on northern Wisconsin.
GTac has proposed a 22-mile open-pit taconite mine in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills, headwaters of the Bad River which flows into Lake Superior at the Kakagon Sloughs, also known as Wisconsin’s Everglades. The U.S. Geological Survey names the Penokee region as one of the largest undeveloped taconite resources in the country, and if permitted, the GTac mine would be the largest mine Wisconsin has ever seen. In order for GTac’s plans to move forward, the company insists that Wisconsin environmental law must first be changed. The state’s new cut-throat administration is doing all it can to weaken the laws, bringing big business and promising jobs to the state at the expense of the natural world and human health.
WISCONSIN’S RECENT MINING HISTORY
Wisconsin has been named one of the least desirable places in the world for mining by mining industry journals in the last two decades. This environmental success is largely due to the Crandon Mine struggle from 1976 to 2003. A broad-based Indian, environmental, and sport-fishing alliance defeated a proposal to build a metallic sulfide mine in northern Wisconsin, which was backed by mining behemoths Exxon, Rio Algom, and BHP Billiton. The “Mining Moratorium Law” that was passed is not a complete ban on mining, but a requirement that, before the state can issue a permit for mining sulfide ore bodies, companies must provide an example of where a sulfide mine in the U.S. or Canada has not polluted surface or ground waters during or after mining. This is also called Wisconsin’s “Prove it First” law. The political movement responsible for this landmark legislation has been called “a very real threat to the global mining industry” by Mining Environmental Management. Similarly, North American Mining has stated that “the increasingly sophisticated political maneuvering by environmental special interest groups [has] made permitting a mine… an impossibility.”
So what does sulfide mining have to do with taconite extraction? GTac has been touting their taconite operation to be “clean” compared to metallic sulfide mining, free of acid mine drainage and other pollution hazards. However, the fact that the company is extracting iron does not mean that dangerous sulfides are not present in the waste rock dug up from the site. Since 2005 alone, neighboring Minnesota taconite mines have been fined over $1.3 million for dozens of air and water quality violations, demonstrating that modern taconite mining companies are chronic polluters. Taconite dust has been linked to mesothelioma cancers in Minnesota. Heavy metals such as mercury in waste rock and plant emissions have polluted rivers and lakes that provide drinking water to Midwesterners. The Saint Louis River, which drains much of Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, is now devoid of wild rice in a dead zone that stretches 100 miles downstream of a large-scale mining operation.
THE PENOKEE HILLS AND WISCONSIN LAW
Wisconsin’s strong mining laws are in danger because of the state’s new administration, infamous for anti-union legislation and austerity measures inciting historic unrest in Madison and throughout the state last year. It comes as little surprise that state legislators are set on weakening current law for the sake of corporate profits, making it easier for mining companies to obtain permits for their operations. The draft of a new mining bill was leaked to the public late this spring, a bill which would have gutted environmental protections and democratic process that includes citizen input. This draft was met with outrage from numerous environmental, citizen, and tribal groups, and was supposedly scrapped. Currently, however, legislators are rewriting the proposal, sneaking bits and pieces of the legislation into otherwise innocuous bills pertaining to waterfront properties. For example, a recently proposed “Dock and Pier Bill” contains legislation involving automatic permit approval and the removal of requirements for air quality modeling before issuing an air permit.
Luckily, opposition to any weakening of Wisconsin mining law is broad and includes nongovernmental environmental groups, outdoor sport groups, residents in northern Wisconsin, and beyond. Hearings in both the state capital and the rural North have been packed with concerned citizens. What’s particularly inspiring and important to younger activists involved in the struggle is the experience and camaraderie with older activists who engaged in the successful Crandon Mine struggle. Similarly inspiring is the non-compromising attitude of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, whose council has openly and continually denounced any development of a mine that would poison their fragile wild rice beds downstream of the mining site. A broad network of people and groups who oppose the mine has come together from all over the state—from urban Milwaukee, home to big mining equipment companies such as Caterpillar, to more rural Stevens Point, notable for supplying an army of student activists during the Crandon Mine struggle.
WATER IS LIFE
Chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr., of the Bad River Band speaks clearly of the importance of Wisconsin’s current environmental struggles when he says “Our water quality standards are our Nation’s proud proclamation of how we value our waterways and wetlands. From just north of the Penokee Mountain area to Lake Superior, our Tribe is ready to stand up and protect Nibi, water, for all peoples and future generations.” Anti-mining groups recognize the importance of water, and the current struggle is as much anti-pollution as it is pro-clean water. We’re in it for the long haul, as this struggle is connected with struggles for clean water and clean air happening all over the globe. The people involved in the grassroots Penokee Mine struggle and the protection of Lake Superior are interested in cross-pollinating with similar grassroots struggles, and would love for you to contact us, either via Save the Water’s Edge (a freelance news site in northern Wisconsin) at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Madison for the Penokees (support group based in Madison) at email@example.com. For more information, please see the resources below: