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Keepers of the Water Screening & Discussion with Anahkwet & Dr. Al Gedicks

Post-screening discussion of Keepers of the Water, a 1996 documentary produced by the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council featuring the activists who eventually helped defeat the Crandon mine proposal (watch it here before viewing the discussion!). Water@UW-Madison hosted a screening and discussion with Director Al Gedicks & Anahkwet (Guy Reiter), Executive Director of Menīkānaehkem, Inc. The panel was moderated by UW Doctoral Candidate Justyn Huckleberry and put on with support from the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI) and Wolf River Action Committee.

Keepers of the Water is a documentary about a diverse coalition of environmental activists that defeated the Exxon and Rio Algom proposed copper-zinc metallic sulfide mine and toxic waste dump at the headwaters of the Mahwāēw- Sēpēw (Menominee)/Wolf River (English translation), in Crandon, Wisconsin.

Virtual Panel: Mining Regulatory Process

The fourth panel, How the Public Can Influence the Mining Regulatory Process, moderated by Rob Lundberg included three panelists:

  • Prof. Al Gedicks, an environmental sociologist and Indigenous rights activist and scholar.
  • Tom Jerow, a member of the Board of Directors for Wisconsin’s Green Fire since 2014 and the Water Resources/Environmental Rules Working Group, leading the metallic mining sub-group. 
  • Allison Werner is the Policy & Advocacy Director for the River Alliance of Wisconsin. She is from Racine, where she was the executive director of Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network

Key takeaways

  • In this final panel Tom Jerow got us started by discussing the logistics required by mining companies to navigate the regulatory phases of mine development, including the timeline of mining operations, and necessary permits. He gave us an overview of necessary mining permits. Importantly: these rules are currently being revised in accordance with Act 134, with a public hearing on October 22 and written comments accepted by the DNR until October 26. Read on for how to engage in the process. 
  • Both Tom and Al discussed the elimination of the Prove it First provision in Wisconsin, which previously required mining companies to show an example of a mine active for at least 10 years that didn’t pollute the air or water. This provision was initially introduced during the time of the Exxon Crandon Mine fight, and resulted in Exxon pulling out of the project.
  • Al gave historical context for using regulatory framework in fighting mining projects in Wisconsin. He discussed tools both the community and the mine would employ, and told the story of Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwe fighting off the Crandon mine. He told us that at the end of the Crandon mine fight from 1976-2003 was the affirmation of Mole Lake Ojibwe’s water quality standards and tribal authority over the reservation and its resources.
  • Allison left us with a few key steps for how to get involved in the regulatory process:
    • 1. DNR staff are open to questions and available to help you understand these complicated processes—reach out to them to learn more on the DNR metallic mining page.
    • 2. There are four administrative mining rules that are currently being updated. They have until February 2021 to finish this process. If folks would like to engage, the River Alliance and other organizations will provide advice on how to engage in this legal rule-making process. 
    • 3. Provide written comments by October 26 that (1) stay focused on the subject matter; (2) have specific and clear comments with your reasons for your concerns for the harm to our land and waters; (3) talk from your personal experience—where do you live, is there a mine project you are concerned about, how would your community be impacted by a specific mine project?
    • 4. Reach out to your elected officials—they need to know you care about how metallic sulfide mining would impact your community and our lands and water. 
    • 5. Connect with the organizations working on these issues. Find a list of them here.  

Panelists

Al Gedicks is an environmental sociologist and Indigenous rights activist and scholar. He has written extensively about Indigenous and popular resistance to ecologically destructive mining and oil projects. In 1977 he founded the Center for Alternative Mining Development Policy and assisted the Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwe Tribe in successfully resisting Exxon’s proposed zinc sulfide mine upstream from the tribe’s sacred wild rice beds. From 1995-1998, he worked with the Wolf Watershed Educational Project to mobilize public support for Wisconsin’s landmark “Prove It First” Mining Moratorium Law. He is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, a statewide environmental organization to educate the public about metallic sulfide mining projects in the upper Midwest. He is presently working with the Menominee Nation and the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River to oppose the Back Forty project next to the Menominee Rivers.

Tom Jerow has served on the Board of Directors for Wisconsin’s Green Fire since inception in 2014. Wisconsin’s Green Fire supports our conservation legacy by promoting science-based management of Wisconsin’s natural resources. He is a member of the Water Resources/Environmental Rules Working Group, leading the metallic mining sub-group. Tom retired from the Wisconsin DNR in 2013 after 34 years primarily in the water program. Tom had an ancillary role on the following mining proposals while working at Wisconsin DNR: the Lynne mining proposals, the Crandon mine proposal, the Gogebic Taconite Iron mining proposal, and post closure monitoring at the Flambeau mine in Ladysmith. Tom graduated in 1979 from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a degree in Soil Science and has done graduate level course work in hydrogeology.

Allison Werner is the Policy & Advocacy Director for the River Alliance of Wisconsin. She is a native of Racine, where she was the executive director of Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network. Allison joined the River Alliance in April 2006 with an extensive background in watershed advocacy and environmental education. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biological Aspects of Conservation and Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management, both from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. While she has had many roles at the River Alliance, at the core has always been empowering individuals and organizations to protect and restore the great waters of Wisconsin. This has included working to protect the Penokee Hills, the Willow Flowage, and the Wolf River from the threats of mining pollution. 

We Cannot Live Without Water: The Crandon Mine Movement 1976-2003

A short film made by Claudia Delgado for the National History Day project. The video provides some historical and cultural context behind the alliance against Exxon’s proposed Crandon mine at the headwaters of the Wolf River.

Artwork by Susan Simensky Bietila is included in this film: the Tommy Thompson jester puppet, the BAN CYANIDE banner and the installation of Tombstones dedicated to rivers poisoned by mining. Included are pages from the drawn stories, A Northwoods Tale and Water Protectors. You can see the entire stories at art-as-activism.blogspot and in World War 3 Illustrated magazine (AK Press). You can also see more of Susan’s work on our blog here.

Virtual Panel: Water Allies of the Wolf River

The second panel is live! Contribute your questions to the YouTube video.

The second panel, Water Allies of the Wolf River, was moderated by Allison Werner. This panel happened the day after the Dakota Access Pipeline was closed down, which was appropriate timing to talk about water protection and activism. We had three panelists:

  • Anahkwet (Guy Reiter), a traditional Menominee and executive director of Menikanaehkem Community Rebuilders. 
  • Paula Mohan, a Political Scientist whose research focuses on intergovernmental relationships between tribes and state and federal governments.
  • Dale Burie, born in Menominee county and president of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River. 

Key takeaways:

  • The three panelists shared their unique experiences of protecting natural resources, specifically water, in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A key theme of the panel was that anyone can act for protecting the environment—“you are somebody,” you can do something to help movements you care about move forward.
  • Guy has been an earth and water protector pretty much since birth. He grew up walking lightly on the earth and trying to understand his relationship with the natural world. The Menominee creation story starts at the mouth of Menominee River, so when the Back Forty Mine was proposed, Guy started to get involved in water protection. He learned about what sulfur mining was, its impacts on the natural world, put on events, and got people talking about the issue. He helped organize a 126-mile water walk over three days from the Menominee reservation to a Menominee sacred site, Keshena Falls, to the mine site. They walked with intent on the Earth, in a way to think about all of the animals, people, things that would be affected by the potential mine. 
  • Dale spoke of how his Christian beliefs drive his mission to preserve and take care of rivers of Wisconsin. He talked about the formation of his organization, the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River, which just incorporated this past June. Dale said “it isn’t about us anymore, it’s about the next generations.”
  • Paula got involved in environmental activism in high school when Menominee students were peacefully protesting violent spearfishing opposition by resort owners in Conover, WI. She learned then what it means to be both a water ally and an ally to Indigenous people. She said that “the fact that tribes now have a say in what happens in ceded territory means that that watershed has protection that it would not have had otherwise.” She gave a few recommendations to non-natives that want to get involved in water protection: build strong relationships and allow tribes to lead the way and tell you what they need; learn about the regulatory process and where the weaknesses are; and remember that mining companies cannot compete with the resistance that comes with a hive mind and on multiple fronts. 
  • To get involved—become a volunteer, get vocal through letters, calls, and e-mails, develop a tough skin, and learn how to make this hard work fun. Build relationships with your elected officials from town board all the way to the federal level—they need to know these are issues you care about. 

Panelists

Anahkwet (Guy Reiter) is a traditional Menominee who resides on the Menominee Reservation. He is the executive Director of the Menominee Indian community organization Menikahnaehkem. He is a community organizer, activist, author, amateur archaeologist, lecturer, and member of the Menominee Constitutional Taskforce. Anahkwet has organized many events to uplift communities and demonstrated the richness of Menominee culture. He has lectured at Universities on the connection Menominee Indians have to the Menominee River. He has also written articles for Environmental Health News and others. Anahkwet is an advocate for indigenous people everywhere. When Anahkwet isn’t working you’ll find him enjoying time with his wife and children.

Paula Mohan is a Political Scientist whose research focuses on intergovernmental relationships between tribes and state and federal governments and best to enhance tribal sovereignty within those relationships. She currently teaches in the American Indian Studies program at UW-Madison. Paula is a life-long resident of Wisconsin and grew up in central Wisconsin and later, northern Wisconsin in a community bordering the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwa reservation. She has been an active ally with tribes since high school.  

Dale Burie was born in Menominee and is now the president of the River Coalition. He is also a worship leader, musician, and vocalist.

Calling The River by Dee Sweet

What the river says, that is what I say. -- William Stafford

Churning currents and the swift streams 
topple over the logic of volume and gravity--
a stream moves down a slight downhill 
then rushes from tributary to tributary
then on to an inland sea or finally, ocean

A conversation in rills and basins, a river sings
with a slow and patient voice of glaciers
civilizations have gathered on the riverbanks
to bathe, to wave farewell, to lift buckets
from streams, to transport heavy logs

We lift our cupped hands of icy winter flow
and listen closely for a harmony to our days
waiting for a melody we recognize by dialect 
an ancient verse and voice of The People
Say, "river" and we feel it in our veins

Then in whispers or the sound of tiny bells 
from a woodland brook, a brave meander
through white pines and maidenhair ferns,
a rowing song to give a cadence and
meter to a birchbark vessel; say "river"

And then hear a single voice, fearless, strong
the relentless voice of the Wolf calling us home. 

Dee Sweet (Anishinaabe, White Earth) is First Nations Organizer for Wisconsin Conservation Voices.  She is also Wisconsin’s second Poet Laureate, appointed by Governor Jim Doyle in 2004-08.

Resisting Resource Colonialism in the Lake Superior Region

September 2011

by Al Gedicks

Unjustified technological optimism led to BP’s Gulf Coast oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Now, proposals to deploy that same unchecked and faulty industrial logic threaten Wisconsin’s water and the Upper Great Lakes. A coal-mining company is proposing a gigantic open pit mine and massive waste piles that have all the makings of a future ecological disaster that would extend far beyond Wisconsin.

The water that flows off the iron-rich Penokee Hills feeds the Penokee aquifer and the Bad River watershed, which flows into Lake Superior and provides drinking water for the city of Ashland and nearby towns. The water also feeds the wild rice beds of the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe. Wild rice is a sacred plant for the Ojibwe and an important food source. The tribe’s wild rice beds are the largest in the state.

The company has invested in a massive public relations offensive with radio ads proclaiming that such mining can be done safely for generations while protecting the environment. Even worse, this same company has been crafting legislation that would prevent the public and the state’s Indian Nations from challenging any of these claims by excluding them from participation in the mine permitting process. Secrecy is the hallmark of this ill-conceived legislation, with total disregard for public knowledge and input, fundamental water conservation principles, safety and indigenous rights. Local government input would also be limited. This is a recipe for another technological disaster.

Soaring demand for steel, copper and nickel in the rapidly industrializing economies of China and India has led to a mining rush in the entire Lake Superior region of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Wisconsin’s historic iron mining district is confronting the prospects for a new boom-bust cycle based on the low-grade iron ore (taconite) resources of the Penokee-Gogebic Range that stretches from Gogebic County, Michigan to southeastern Bayfield County, Wisconsin. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says this is one of the largest undeveloped taconite resources in the country. They also note that previous resource estimates failed to consider the environmental impacts of large open-pit mines and related processing facilities which would determine whether this resource can be profitably mined.

Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) has leases for the mineral rights on 22,000 acres of the Penokee-Gogebic Range, covering 22 miles in Ashland and Iron Counties. The proposed mine would extract taconite by removing about 650 feet of overburden (waste rock) and creating a narrow pit four miles long, one-third mile wide and at least 900 feet deep. The overburden would be dumped in massive tailings piles along the northwest side of the Penokee-Gogebic Range. If permitted, it would be the largest mine ever seen in Wisconsin. It is already the most controversial project since the failed Crandon metallic sulfide proposal (see “The Crandon Mine Saga” Z Magazine, February 2004). Ever since a grassroots Indian, environmental and sportfishing alliance defeated the Crandon mine proposal the international mining industry has considered the state among the least favorable places for mining investment.

With a projected investment of $1.5 billion, GTAC executives wanted to minimize the political risk of the project. The greatest political vulnerability is organized opposition at the earliest stage of the project. Accurate, reliable information about the social, economic and environmental impacts of taconite mining is likely to fuel the opposition. They were also worried that Wisconsin’s mining regulations would not allow such a mine to be permitted. GTAC executives discussed these concerns with several legislators and contributed more than $40,000 in 2010 campaign contributions to Republican candidates involved with the mining issue, including Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee). Now Representative Honadel and Senator Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee) are pushing to have the legislature rush through a major overhaul of Wisconsin’s mining regulations without adequate public notice or participation.

The Iron Mining Law, drafted with the assistance of mining industry consultants, would drastically speed up the mine permitting process by denying the public and Indian Nations their right to be informed about the social, economic and environmental impacts of mining projects and to participate in the decision making process through contested case hearings and local impact committees.

What’s the Big Rush?

State Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar), whose district encompasses the proposed mine, was outraged when he learned that mining proponents were attempting to rush the Iron Mining bill (re-named the “Jobs for Generations Act”) through the legislature. “It is an absolute insult for Senator Hopper to schedule a bill that hasn’t even been released to the public. The mining company has been privately writing this legislation for five months. It is only a matter of common decency that the chair gives the public more than five days to review the bill. I am still in the process of trying to understand what the 186-page bill does,” said Jauch. “In five words, I think it means ‘give us what we want.’”

Several of the state’s environmental groups, including the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, Clean Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club successfully mobilized their membership to force the cancellation of the hearing. The bill has been rewritten, but is still unavailable to the public as of this writing.

The legislation comes as a complete surprise to the communities most likely to be affected by the proposed mining. At a public forum in Ashland last January 2011, representatives of GTAC assured the audience that they were not seeking to change Wisconsin mining regulations or public participation in the permit process. Four months later there is a bill that does exactly that. “Legislators are totally rewriting Wisconsin’s mining laws for one out-of-state mining company that’s never developed an iron mine,” said Jennifer Giegerich of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “One of the things they’re doing is eliminating many of the public-health and natural resource protections that we have valued here in Wisconsin.”

Under the provisions of this bill (LRB 2035), which only applies to iron mining, the mining company will no longer be required to do a risk assessment of accidental health and environmental hazards associated with the mining operation. Existing water quality standards that protect water in the Great Lakes basin will be sacrificed if they conflict with “the need for waste sites and processing facilities to be contiguous to the location of the iron deposits.”

Just in case the authors of the bill may have overlooked some potential environmental obstacle, the bill states that, “If there is a conflict between a provision in the iron mining laws and a provision in another state environmental law, the provision in the iron mining law controls.” In other words, the Iron Mining Law proclaims that the expansion of the mining industry is the official policy of the state and all other considerations are subordinate to mining.

The Cline Group of Companies

The major reason for this assault on environmental protection and indigenous rights is to accommodate the wishes of a mining company to receive a mining permit in record time. GTAC President Bill Williams told a reporter that his company may abandon the project if the process takes too long.

GTAC is a limited liability company registered on the Toronto Stock Exchange and owned by the privately held Cline Group, a coal mining company based in Florida. Christopher Cline is a billionaire who owns large coal reserves in Illinois and Northern Appalachia. He has been called the “New King Coal” by Bloomberg Markets Magazine. Coal industry publications describe his leadership style as confrontational. In 1999 he closed down a West Virginia mine when workers voted to join the union. He then reopened the mine without union workers. As popular opposition to the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining spread in Appalachia, Cline shifted his new investments to Illinois coal. The company’s coal mines in Illinois use longwall mining to remove the entire coal seam. Once the coal has been removed the ground sinks, sometimes to a depth of more than four feet as the earth above the excavated coal fills the void. Environmental groups have protested that longwall mining has disrupted stream flows, polluted aquifers and permanently damaged historic buildings.

Senator Zipperer, co-sponsor of the bill, says that mining companies need to be assured that they will get their permits at the end of the process: “The main problem they have is uncertainty. I think the current statute is, in effect, a mining moratorium in this state.” The current Mining Moratorium Law does not ban mining. It simply requires that before the state can issue a permit for mining of sulfide ore bodies, potential miners must provide an example of where a metallic sulfide mine in the United States or Canada has not polluted surface and groundwaters during or after mining. This is also known as Wisconsin’s “Prove it First” law. The political movement that was responsible for this landmark environmental legislation left an indelible impression on the entire international mining industry. The Mining Environmental Management Journal in 2000 portrayed the Wolf Watershed Educational Project, one of the leading opponents of the Crandon mine, as an “example of what is becoming a very real threat to the global mining industry.”

The mining industry has not been able to find a single example where they have mined without polluting surface and groundwaters, including the recently closed (1997) Flambeau copper sulfide mine in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. In January 2011, the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council (WRPC) filed suit against the Flambeau Mining Company and Kennecott Minerals (subsidiaries of parent company Rio Tinto in London) for ongoing violations of the federal Clean Water Act, including discharging pollutants such as copper, into the Flambeau River at levels far in excess of applicable water quality standards.

GTAC published an open letter to the people of Ashland and Iron Counties explaining why they were seeking legislative changes to the mining law. The ad stated that, “The regulatory framework needs certainty.” The Bad River Watershed Association responded to the ad saying, “We agree. For example, local people who drink groundwater from their wells need the certainty that they can continue to count on a reliable supply of safe drinking water. We deserve a permitting process that will ensure rigorous review before a mine goes forward…. The permit process should not allow for a series of hurry-up exemptions to the detriment of our streams, wetlands and groundwater.” Unfortunately, under the provisions of this bill there will be no time for a rigorous review. If the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) does not complete their review of the application within 300 days the application is automatically approved.

A Threat to Water and Health

The process of extracting taconite from the host rocks requires large amounts of water and leaves behind vast amounts of waste rock called tailings. These large tailings piles have the potential to generate acid rock drainage if sulfide minerals are present in the waste rock. Matt Fifield, managing director of GTAC told a reporter that, “We have no expectations of making acid mine drainage.” If sulfide minerals are present in the host rock, there will always be the possibility of acid mine drainage. Does Fifield really believe that GTAC is exempt from natural law? In Minnesota, sulfate pollution from iron ore waste rock has destroyed wild rice beds downstream from mining operations. The sulfate comes from sulfide in rocks exposed to air and water during mining.

One of the early victories of the environmental movement was the successful prosecution of the Reserve Mining Company for dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior. From 1955-1974, Reserve Mining’s processing plant at Silver Bay, Minnesota dumped 47 tons of taconite tailings into Lake Superior every minute. In 1974 U.S. District Court Judge Miles Lord ruled that Reserve’s discharge into Lake Superior violated federal and state pollution laws and ordered Reserve to stop dumping its tailings in the lake. The key moment in the lengthy court battle was when a chemist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found microscopic fibers similar to asbestos in the water supplies of Duluth and Two Harbors, both downstream from Silver Bay. The EPA put out an advisory about the asbestos-like particles because asbestos was known to cause cancer. Concerned about possible health risks, Duluth residents switched to drinking bottled water until a special filtration plant was built.

The Minnesota Health Department has confirmed 58 taconite miners have died of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, since 2003. Researchers concluded that commercial asbestos was the likely cause of the mesothelioma though it didn’t rule out taconite dust as a factor. Some scientists have suspected that exposure to asbestos might be from inhaling asbestos-like fibers in the taconite production plants or from contaminated taconite rocks.

 According to Mary Manning, the director of health promotion and chronic disease at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), “Those fragments get into the air and there’s been questions over the years about what the health effects associated with those mineral fragments are.” After the MDH was criticized for withholding data from the public about a dozen confirmed cases of mesothelioma among Iron Range miners, the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health took the lead role in studying the relationship between mesothelioma and taconite mining in northern Minnesota. Before Judge Lord’s decision, taconite tailings from East Range mines were used in sidewalk construction, house foundations, road building and winter sanding. After Lord’s decision, taconite tailings can only be used at the mine site.

Ignoring Indigenous Rights

The Lake Superior region is well known for its rich reserves of iron and copper. Gogebic and Penokee come from the Ojibwe word for iron. The systematic removal of the indigenous peoples from these mineral and timber-rich lands impoverished the Lake Superior Ojibwe bands and enriched several generations of East Coast copper and iron-mining families, including the Aggasizs and the Rockefellers.

Beginning in the 1890s and continuing for the next 50 years or so, the iron mines of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota shipped over four billion tons of iron ore to America’s steel mills, accounting for more than three-quarters of the nation’s iron ore. But all this wealth did not result in prosperous and stable communities; rather, it has resulted in widespread poverty and unemployment. In the post World War II period, the steel companies diversified their supply sources by investing in potentially competitive sources of iron ore in Venezuela, Brazil, Canada and Australia.

The investment decisions of U.S. Steel and Hanna Mining threw an entire regional economy based on mining into a severe economic depression. The last iron ore mined in Wisconsin was from the Cary mine in 1965.

Will this boom-bust cycle produce different results this time around? Bad River Ojibwe Tribal chair Mike Wiggins Jr. is concerned that this mine could discharge polluted water to the Bad River watershed and the tribe’s wild rice beds in the Kakagon Sloughs. The Sloughs are a 16,000-acre complex of wetlands, woodlands and sand dune ecosystems that is one of the largest freshwater estuaries in the world and crucial spawning grounds for Lake Superior fisheries. The Kakagon and Bad River wetland complex has been called “Wisconsin’s Everglades.”

To protect their wild rice beds the tribe has applied to the EPA for authority under the Clean Water Act to enforce tribal water quality standards on the reservation. It was the Mole Lake Ojibwe’s assertion of tribal water regulatory authority that was one of the major turning points in the successful resistance to the Crandon mine project. “Water and water levels are non-negotiable,” said Wiggins. “They are for our survival.”

Economic Engine or Resource Curse?

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) is the state’s largest business lobbying group, representing some of the world’s largest mining equipment companies like Joy Global and Bucyrus International, located in southeastern Wisconsin. If large-scale taconite mining is permitted in Wisconsin, these companies stand to profit by supplying the mining machinery for these operations. WMC was a major lobbying force for the Crandon mine and against the Mining Moratorium Law. Now, even before any legislation has been introduced, GTAC executives have enlisted WMC to run a statewide radio ad campaign promoting the bill as a “Jobs for Generations Act.” The ad states: “Iron County could be the center of record breaking job creation that will ripple through our entire state. You see, there are billions of tons of iron ore in Iron County, Wisconsin that can be safely mined for generations, all while protecting the environment.”

We’ve heard this story before—mining as an engine of growth. Just look at the poverty in Appalachia (coal), the Ozarks (lead), the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (iron and copper) or Minnesota’s Iron Range. “In the United States,” says economist Thomas Power, “the historic mining regions have become synonymous with persistent poverty, not prosperity.” Economists call this the “resource curse.” This refers to the paradox that countries (and communities) with an abundance of natural resources have less economic growth than countries (and communities) without these natural resources. Over the last several decades the evidence shows that dependence on mining did not enable U.S. mining communities to perform better than other U.S. communities. “In fact,” says Power, “mining-dependent communities lagged significantly behind the average for the rest of the nation.”

Modern mineral mining is very machinery-intensive, creating far fewer jobs than promised. The most competitive mines extract more minerals with fewer workers. Rio Tinto’s iron ore mines in the Pilbara region of Western Australia have invested heavily in robotoics, including driverless trucks and automated drilling. GTAC’s Matt Fifield has said that his taconite mine could compete with established mines despite the difficulty of mining such steep and narrow deposits by operating more efficiently and relying heavily on automation.

If GTAC’s job projections are overstated, they completely ignore the impact of the proposed mine on existing jobs in tourism, forestry, the Lake Superior fishery and the subsistence economies of the Lake Superior Ojibwe tribes that have treaty-protected harvest rights in the ceded territories of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.            

On June 9, 2011, environmental activists and organizations gathered at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College to organize the Penokee Hills Education Project. Inspired by the Wolf Watershed Educational Project that helped defeat the Crandon mine, this coalition of Indian and environmental groups will educate a statewide audience about the stakes involved in the proposed mine. According to Frank Koehn, one of the organizers of the Penokee Hills Education Project, “GTAC tried to change the mining laws to give them unlimited and free access to the waters of the Bad River watershed so they could make billions of dollars.”

Postscript

When the Wisconsin legislature concluded its spring session without passing the Iron Mining bill, GTAC put the project on hold. Matt Fifield said his company is ready to spend $20 to $30 million on the next phase of the project if the mining laws are changed to accommodate his project. When the bill comes up in the fall 2011 legislative session, the opposition will be ready to resume the battle.


Al Gedicks teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and is the Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council. He is the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations (South End Press, 2001). 


Below are two more articles written by Professor Gedicks