Wisconsin Republicans have begun their push for dangerous mining up north.
“The iron mine train starts today,” proclaimed Assembly representative Mark Honadel at a press conference held by Assembly Republicans on Tuesday morning. He was referring to a proposed twenty-two mile long mountain-top removal project in the Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin. These hills form the headwaters of the Bad River and comprise the southern boundary of the Bad River watershed, the largest Wisconsin watershed draining into Lake Superior. The Nature Conservancy reports that the Bad River is home to 72 species of rare and endangered plants and animals. The mouth of the Bad River also contains large wild rice beds that are critical to the economy and life ways of the Bad River Band of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people.
Mark Honadel represents South Milwaukee and Oak Creek, WI, communities that are home to two factories owned by Caterpillar, the largest manufacturer of mining and heavy construction equipment on the planet. Caterpillar’s mining division moved its headquarters to Milwaukee earlier this year after their purchase of Bucyrus, a manufacturer of strip mining and underground coal mining equipment.
Honadel and Rep. Mary Williams from Medford, chair of the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business, kicked off the event this morning by announcing a public hearing on mining issues to be held in Hurley on Thursday. This, despite the non-existence of an actual piece of legislation to be heard.
Rumors of a mining bill designed to fast-track the permitting process and weaken Wisconsin’s robust environmental protection rules have been flying around the capitol since last winter. Senators Rich Zipperer and Neal Kedzie, both from suburbs outside of Milwaukee, were reportedly crafting a law under the direction of lobbyists for GTac, the company which has already obtained exploration permits for the area.
Amidst pressure from the public and environmental and tribal groups over the spring and summer, the senators were forced to pull back the bill before introducing it. On September 22, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald convened a select Senate Committee on Mining Jobs “to review Wisconsin’s mining laws and regulations, and make improvements aimed at creating jobs in rural Wisconsin” with Kedzie as chair.
Critics are adamant that Wisconsin’s mining laws are fine the way they are, and that there are better ways to create more sustainable jobs in the region. Last April during his State of the Tribes address to the full Wisconsin legislature, Mike Wiggins Jr. said that he was concerned about effects of the mine in spite of its potential economic benefits. “Our lands and water define who we are as Ojibwe people,” Wiggins said. Wiggins is the chairman of the Great Lakes Inter-tribal Council, as well as chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose land borders the Penokee Hills.
Veterans of the twenty-year anti-mine battle that took place east of the Penokee Hills in Crandon still live in the area and are prepared to fight. Their struggle resulted in the mining laws on the books today, which force mining companies to prove the existence of just one mine somewhere on the planet that has not polluted surrounding air, land, or water. So far, mining companies have not been able to produce that kind of evidence.
Crandon mine opponents successfully built coalitions of tribal members, sports enthusiasts, and union workers to defeat the proposed metallic sulfide mine. Those coalitions are being reactivated, as the tourism-based economies of communities such as Bayfield, Washburn, and Ashland would also be polluted by contaminants from mining activities and tailing ponds flowing into Lake Superior.
Many of these people are in Madison this week to testify against a bill that would weaken wetland regulations. It appears to be a back door way of making it easier for mining companies to do business in Wisconsin – part of the chipping away of administrative rules and regulations that has marked the Walker regime. Senate and Assembly Natural Resource Committees are meeting jointly today to hear testimony on Special Session AB 24, which is supported by the Wisconsin Builders Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. This is the first piece of legislation that the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on, but it won’t be the last.
At the press conference this morning, Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder was confident that the Republican “jobs” agenda would move forward quickly: “It will be an open transparent process that will involve all stakeholders, but we will be moving forward with mining in Wisconsin. We need to capitalize on the opportunity for creating jobs.”
Mark Honadel was even more excited: “The whole concept of iron mining — it’s going to be bigger than GM in Janesville, bigger than Mercury Marine. It will definitely touch the entire state.” And Mary Williams added, “there’s going to be trucking and railway involved and will attract other jobs and businesses to the area.”
On the other hand, William Maki opined in the October 22 issue of the Daily Press of Ashland: “This project can be compared to having a priceless gem and then smashing it to bits while attempting to extract more value from it. The semi-pristine, wild, wilderness like land where this proposed facility is to be located is the gem and it cannot be improved by a mining and processing facility. It only can be ruined.”
I’m not sure that Republican legislators have any idea about the depth of opposition they will face up north. Before he died in 1999, Walt Bresette, a member of the Red Cliff Ojibwe and a journalist and activist, told a story about a public hearing on a Department of Energy proposal to locate a nuclear waste dump on the bedrock of northern Wisconsin back in the late 1970s. He described the nineteen-hour hearing, and one very old Ojibwe woman who got up and pointed her finger at the Department of Energy bureaucrats, saying:
“It’s not because we’re smarter than you and it’s not because we’re stronger than you, but I’m telling you now you can’t put your dump here. And it’s not because we know better that we can say no, but it’s because we can’t say yes. And the reason that we can’t say yes is that it doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Therefore we have no authority to make decisions that will affect them in a negative way. Therefore that’s why we can’t say yes.”