This week’s Friday afternoon news dump in Wisconsin was a doozy: A new bill to allow the Gogebic Taconite iron mining company to bar the public from using public access land on an eight-square-mile parcel near their proposed mine site. This is an area that attracts people from all over the country to enjoy the excellent trout fishing and hunting. Announced late on Friday afternoon before the long Labor Day weekend, the bill is being fast-tracked and may pass into law before the end of September. It is up for a public hearing this Wednesday and is scheduled to be voted out of committee on Thursday. Senate Bill 278 was introduced by Senators Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend). Tiffany championed the second go round for the massive mining deregulation bill that finally passed into law last spring, after corporate interests backing the plan spent millions unseating Democratic State Senator Jess King last November to clinch the extra Republican vote needed on the bill, since Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) broke ranks to oppose the measure.
Nobody was willing to take credit for writing the bill before it was passed, but after it was signed into law Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was not ashamed to admit that lawyers for GTac wrote the bill. Even though the law pushes the contested case hearing (an administrative legal proceeding in which the public may contest mining company data and claims and call them to testify under oath) until after the mining permit has already been granted, and severely reduces the role of the Department of Natural Resources in the regulatory process, eliminating most of their enforcement authority and rendering them little more than bureaucratic “box checkers,” apparently the company’s lawyers didn’t go far enough and now they have to pass a new law. GTac began drilling for core samples in June this year, soon after the mining bill was passed and the snow melted. While the Department of Natural Resource’s ability to monitor GTac’s activities and enforce environmental violations has been hampered by the law and the lack of political will to dedicate agency resources toward these activities, it turns out there are plenty of members of the public willing to gather baseline data, monitor water quality, and document erosion around GTac’s core drilling sites. For months people have been documenting their findings and submitting them to the DNR for use in evaluating GTac’s claims on various applications. The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa hired a wetlands expert to verify the wetlands delineation work required of the company before permits can be issued. But last week GTac threatened the tribe with legal action for trespassing if that person were found to be on their property, "for any other purpose (beside those permitted by law)." The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have established a Treaty Harvest and Education Project encampment at the foot of the Penokee Hills near the proposed mine site as a base for these and other tribal ceremonial activities. To date nearly 3,000 visitors have been through the camp since it opened in late March this year.
Camp host Melvin Gasper and co-host Felina LaPointe have been leading tours of the area and organizing hospitality for visitors all summer. Mel has prepared thousands of pieces of fry bread, and Felina even cooked and delivered a batch of fried chicken to the Arizona-based armed militia men who were hired by GTac to guard their drill sites before they were forced to withdraw because they were operating in the state illegally. Over the summer, scientists from many disciplines have toured the area identifying plant and animal species, looking at rock outcroppings and testing water. This is bad news for GTac, whose claims about the mine site and the character of the ore body have up until now have been based on sheer assertion. They have refused to reveal information about 250 core samples of the area taken decades ago by U.S. Steel, claiming it is proprietary. People interested in protecting the hundreds of acres of fragile wetlands and sensitive streams and lakes in the area hope to deliver to the DNR the scientific information they need to challenge GTac’s claims about the area GTac plans to destroy by blasting a 1,000-foot-deep, 4-mile—and-a-half long hole in the ground. This is the kind of activity that GTac aims to put an end to with SB 278. GTac has purchased the mineral rights to the ore body from several different mining companies that own the land. Those landowners have enrolled the land in a program called Managed Forest Law, which allows them a huge property tax break in exchange for allowing public access to the land for recreational purposes.
Removing the land from this program and completely closing off access to the public involves paying a withdrawal tax based on either property tax rates or a percentage of the value of timber on the land which the DNR warns "can be quite substantial." Withdrawal takes effect on January 1 of the year after the application for withdrawal has been submitted. But GTac wants to restrict access immediately to put an end to the inventorying of potentially threatened or endangered species and water and air monitoring by the public. So just as they did with Act 1, the mining deregulation bill, GTac hopes to legislate decades of environmental stewardship practice and on-the-ground realities away with the sweep of Governor Scott Walker’s pen. The proposal to be voted on next Thursday morning would allow the mining company to keep the land in the Managed Forest Law program for the tax advantages, but close public access to portions of it based on a negotiated agreement between the DNR and the company. The public and the local units of government are completely shut out of that process. GTac claims it needs to block public access for the safety of their workers in light of an incident in June in which a dozen or so people engaged workers at a drill site in a yelling match and allegedly threw some tools in the woods. This – and the threat posed by the scientific data being collected by the public -- is all the provocation GTac needs to change state law so that it is fine-tuned to their purposes. GTac can be forgiven for underestimating Wisconsinite’s love of the land and water in the Lake Superior basin and the lengths they will go to protect it. After all, GTac is owned by Florida-based coal baron Chris Cline, who may have never set foot in the region for all we know. But the further GTac moves along in the process of attempting to extract financial wealth from the land and water that people consider to be priceless, the more the company’s execs will realize that no matter how many laws they change, false promises they make or lies they tell, they will never be granted the social license required to succeed in their catastrophic mountain top removal project. In the two years I have been covering this story I have heard hundreds, maybe thousands, of people give impassioned testimony about the importance of clean water and protecting the Bad River and Lake Superior. I listened and learned about federal treaties with the tribes who live in northern Wisconsin and the rights they have reserved for the entire northern third of the state to hunt, fish, harvest and gather.
As time wore on it became more and more apparent that the points of fact raised by these people would never be considered by the majority in the state legislature for whom power, not facts or any notion of the public good, was the driving force behind their votes. And in the Citizens United era where big money buys elections, money is power. But that doesn’t stop people from turning out to public hearings, forums and events in an urgent attempt to educate themselves and their neighbors, and to build power within their communities to stop what they see is a form of collective suicide by air and water poisoning. Although many feel beleaguered by each new turn of events -- the presence of a paramilitary force in the Penokee Hills, the introduction of this new bill – they are more determined than ever to protect and defend their quality of life and the health of their communities. I have no doubt that people from Iron, Ashland and Bayfield Counties will make the five-hour drive to Madison to testify at the hearing next week, even though they know they will not likely affect the outcome of the bill. But they know that every time they speak out in public, somebody new hears their voice and wants to learn more. One day someone will write the story of how we almost self-destructed as a society and how the determination, persistence and courage of a bunch of heartbroken people saved us from total annihilation. Whoever that author is will want to have access to their thoughts. Looking up the records of legislative hearings would be a good place to start.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.