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Update (below): Eviction threat removed from LCO Harvest and Education Learning Project.
Governor Scott Walker signed a bill into law on Thursday written for the Gogebic Taconite mining company (GTac), allowing them to prohibit public access to land and roads surrounding their work sites and dodge fees required by the Managed Forest Law (MFL) program, all while taking tax breaks created by a law designed to increase public access to the area.
The bill signing comes two days after GTac's bulk sampling plan got the green light from the Department of Natural Resources, and three days after the Iron County Forestry Committee voted unanimously to evict the Lac Courte Oreilles Harvest and Education Learning Project from the county forest at the foot of the Penokee Hills, where tribal members and independent scientists have been based since March of this year.
GTac has plans to build the largest open-pit mine in the world in the Penokee Hills, near the headwaters of the Bad River watershed that drains into Lake Superior. It would span 22 miles and reach depths of nearly 1,000 feet.
The company scaled back their planned bulk sampling activities after Ashland County passed an ordinance requiring mining companies to apply for a conditional use permit for such activities. The presence of a large amount of a nasty form of asbestos was also confirmed and reconfirmed by independent scientists at the Ashland County sites.
"Bulk sampling" is a new term created by a massive mining deregulation law passed earlier this year. It encompasses activities that were formerly characterized as prospecting, which involve the removal of up to 10,000 tons of rock per site.
Under the old law, mining companies were required to obtain a prospecting permit, which involved the company submitting an environmental impact statement (EIS) that was subject to some public oversight. Members of the public and other concerned groups also had legal standing at hearings on the matter to challenge the findings a mining companies' studies.
Under the new law, a mining company does not have to produce an EIS or even obtain a bulk sampling permit. They need only submit their bulk sampling plan to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which then determines what specific permits they will require given the types of activities described in the plan. There is also no requirement for any hearings, or even any kind of public information session, as part of the new process.
In this case, Larry Lynch, the DNR's mining project manager, determined that GTac needs a storm water permit and must file a claim of exemption from air permitting with the DNR. They must also file tree cutting notices and reports with the Iron County clerk and department forester, along with a reclamation bond. GTac's storm water permit application was submitted last week, and the DNR has 30 days to determine its completeness.
GTac's bulk sampling plan states that they will use a location on Moore Park Road as the staging area for the processing and loading of the 25-40 ton trucks that will haul away the rock. Moore Park Road is a mile-and-a-half-long gravel road that winds through thickly forested land from from Highway 77 to the Tyler Forks river.
The area is a world-class trout fishing location that provides habitat to the endangered wood turtle, among many other plant and animal species. However, numerous landowners along the road have been bought out by a Washington-based "private property investment firm" called LandService.
Also situated on Moore Park Road is the county forest property, which the LCO Harvest and Education Learning Project calls home. The project is now under threat of eviction.
Tribal flags at the entrance to the LCO Harvest and Education Learning Project.
The full Iron County Board will take up the Forestry Committee's recommendation to evict the project at their meeting next Tuesday. Last summer the board referred a similar recommendation back to committee after an outpouring of anger by dozens of concerned citizens and a threat of legal action by the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, which claims the project's activities are protected by their treaty rights.
Considering the facts, this newly-enacted law barring the public from the vicinity of bulk sampling and mining activities seems to be a prime example of state and local governments bowing to the demands of big business, and against the interests of science, public health and safety.
Update: Eviction threat removed from LCO Harvest and Education Learning Project.
On Friday, the Iron County Clerk posted a notice that the Forestry Committe's recommendation for the eviction of the LCO HELP village has been removed from the board's agenda. Apparently, the county's liability insurance won't cover the cost of lawsuits brought by individual tribes or the Chippewa Federation.
Illustration: Flickr user DonkeyHotey, creative commons licensed.
Photos: Rebecca Kemble. Pictured: LCO HELP supporter Elizabeth Bader outside of the Iron County Board Meeting that was considering eviction of the tribe.