The battle to protect clean water in the Great Lakes is heating up in Wisconsin as last year’s failed mining bill is back on the table. The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is on the frontlines, with thousands of Ashland County residents, environmental advocates, fishing and wildlife enthusiasts, and other tribal nations backing them up.
Caroline Lake forms the pristine headwaters of the Bad River, which runs through the Bad River Band’s reservation and empties out into Lake Superior after passing through the Kakagon Sloughs, home to the largest natural wild rice beds in the Great Lakes Basin.
Caroline Lake sits on the edge of the Penokee Hills, for which the iron mining company Gogebic Taconite (GTac) has grandiose plans: To blow them to smithereens with a series of 5.5 million-pound explosives – each similar to the impact of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima - in order to extract low-grade iron known as taconite. Waste rock with the potential to leech billions of gallons of sulfuric acid from what would be the largest open pit iron mine in the world could be dumped into Caroline Lake, as well as many other lakes, streams and wetlands in the area.
Bad River members consider the river and the sloughs the spiritual and physical lifeblood of their people, and the threat posed by the potential mine and the legislative action that would permit it an act of genocide.
Last week in Madison, during the only public hearing scheduled for the bill, Bad River Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. told legislators, “I look at all of you, and you’re 75% water, probably Madison municipal water supply. We are 75% water from aquifers deeper than 1,000 feet that you’re not holding GTac accountable for. Because we’re directly downstream and set to endure the impacts of this project, we view this as an imminent threat. We view this as an act of genocide.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this month about the Idle No More movement, Dr. Pam Palmater, Mi'kmaw lawyer and chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, Toronto, said, “First Nations are the last best hope that Canadians have of protecting lands for foods and clean water for the future, not just for our people, but for Canadians as well.”
Robert Desjarlait, co-founder of Protect Our Manoomin and member of the Red Lake Ojibwe-Anishinaabe Nation, made the same point about treaty rights in Minnesota, and the same is also true for Wisconsin. That’s because no matter how corrupt state politics may be, Ojibwe have rights under treaties signed with the federal government in the mid-19th century.
At an anti-mining rally in Madison this past weekend, Bad River member Cherie Pero gave a brief history of how those treaties came about, and what they are for. Check out this two-minute video of her speech. Those were peace treaties between the tribes and the federal government that ceded most of the land to the U.S., but retained rights over management of natural resources, including water, in the northern third of Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Penninsula and parts of the mainland, and northeastern Minnesota – what is now known as the Ceded Territories.
Should the mining bill become law in Wisconsin, the best chance of voiding it will be in federal courts on the basis of those treaty rights. That’s a battle that would begin with an injunction against implementing the new regulations, but could go on for decades, costing the Bad River Band millions in legal fees, taking up resources they could be using to support the health and well-being of their members.
Mining, construction, banking, transportation, and other corporate interests are pushing the case for the bill with millions of dollars of campaign contributions to state legislators. At least one million dollars was donated to mining committee members, and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reports today that a total of $15.6 million was given by pro-mining interests to Governor Walker and other state legislators, outspending groups opposed to the measure 610 to 1.
Despite the overwhelming majority of public testimony against the bill last session and during the public hearing this past week, the bill will likely sail through the assembly. But it may get defeated in the senate where one Republican out of the 18-15 majority, Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), has already decided to vote no and is working hard to convince at least one more of his GOP colleagues to do the same. Walker and other GOP legislative leaders have said they want the bill signed into law by early March.
Meanwhile, Democratic legislators have scheduled an unofficial “listening session” for February 9 in Ashland, where the impacts of an enormous strip-mining operation will hit hardest.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website.