The water in Northern Wisconsin ceded territory—the lakes, the waterfalls and the rivers—is crystal clear.
The Chippewa bands here are also clear about their treaty rights. Treaty rights firmly enshrined in the United States Constitution. Rights that prevent any project that will interfere with their hunting and fishing, anything that will keep them from having clean water and their sacred manoomin.
The non-Native communities around them are living in fear, because they’ve lost control of their government. Their state legislators have been bought off. They fear lawsuits if they try to stop the 22-mile long open-pit mine proposed for their communities. They’re afraid of continuing poverty if they don’t accept mining jobs. They’re afraid that their neighboring counties and Native American tribes don’t care about what happens to them.
And they don’t see how they can also say “no” to mining, as the tribes have.
Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) helped state legislators write a mining bill that passed in March and removed key environmental protections and citizen participation rights in order to “streamline” the permits for the mine. The project will blast the Penokee hills of northern Wisconsin and damage the regional watershed.
The two major counties involved took up zoning ordinances in June to protect the environment, including financial assurances from adverse impacts. But their respective ordinances aren’t on the same page with each other and don’t come close to the complete opposition mounted by the three Chippewa bands, Bad River, Lac Courte Oreilles and Red Cliff.
In June Ashland County quickly passed a 26-page group of ordinances regulating effects to persons and property. Iron County is still writing its plan, however, for regulating the mine, claiming that no regulations for iron mines means the mines are illegal.
Meanwhile, as Iron County delays, the mining company becomes increasingly vested in the project while pro-mining groups like the Wisconsin Realtors Association pushes for legislation that will strengthen the vested rights of property developers.
Anti-mining locals are counting in part on protection from treaty rights, particularly those of the Bad River Band, whose reservation is six miles from the mining site.
Hillsboro, Illinois residents who have been fighting the Deer Run coal mine since 2004 know first-hand what happened when they give their control away. Their city left regulation to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Deer Run first promised to preserve their heritage farms, but then bought and bulldozed them. Over 30,000 acres of prime farmland will be destroyed, according to 83-year-old local, fifth-generation farmer Catherine Edmiston. That destruction has been documented in the film “Sinking the Heartland,” which can be seen here.
The permit resulted in a high-hazard coal slurry impound of toxic “coal puke” within the city near a public school, and a second impound is expected. When spontaneous combustion fires erupt from coal piles, the mining company denies access to the local fire department, calling them “controlled burns,” Edmiston said.
Zoning ordinances, no matter how strict, are not working for several communities in western Wisconsin, where frack sand mining companies simply ignore citations, and the pared-down state Department of Natural Resources cannot keep up with violations.
The situation prompted the Ho-Chunk tribal council to adopt a formal resolution opposing all frack sand mining in 2012.
Tribal member Bill Greendeer presented the document to a local gathering in February, to show the kind of measure the tribe feels is necessary. “They are going to keep doing this, and it’s got to stop. You gotta let Mother Earth live, not just for our grandchildren and our children, but for us. You gotta’ stop this now,” said Greendeer.
But non-tribal governments are not understanding what the Ho-Chunk mean when they say “stop” or what Bad River Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. and Elder Joe Rose mean when they say there will be no mine.
Locked in the death spiral of a failed regulatory system dominated by special interests and the evisceration of municipal sovereignty by Dillon’s Rule, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-WI) is doing her best: she has proposed five bills to regulate the frack sand mines in her area.
“Citizens should not be charged with the monitoring of mines in their neighborhoods. If Wisconsin allows sand mining, Wisconsin must invest in staff to monitor compliance with the law,” she stated.
What’s not clear however, is how the state will meet this mandate without funding. Citizens in northern Wisconsin are doing their own monitoring at the present exploratory drilling sites. They have found pyrite, a mineral that produces sulfuric acid when left in waste rock piles, in discarded sample fragments (personal communication Joseph Skulan).
The mining company intends to dump this kind of waste into water bodies and wetlands in Chippewa ceded territory. The state claims that’s in compliance with current mining law in the State of Wisconsin, which presumes that environmental damage is necessary.
The Chippewa tribes, who have never been formally consulted, might respond “What part of no (mining) don’t you understand?”