Bad River Band Establishes Legal Defense Fund to Stop Proposed Iron-Ore Mine

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa chairman on March 15 announced a defense fund to fight a proposed iron-ore mine.

Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Mike Wiggins announced a defense fund March 15 for his tribe’s legal fight to stop the permitting of the largest iron-ore, open-pit mine in the world slated for the headwaters of the Bad River, six miles from the reservation border in northern Wisconsin ceded territory.

Wiggins, other Chippewa tribes in the area, and several environmental groups maintain that the mine's proposed location threatens the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs, a 16,000-acre wetland complex at the mouths of the two rivers that contains valuable flora and fauna, including wild rice beds of cultural significance to the tribes, and is an area the Environmental Protection Agency has stated is in excellent condition. These resources are within the Bad River Reservation and contain 40 percent of the Lake Superior Basin coastal wetlands.

According to a Wisconsin Wetlands Association study funded in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "the exceptional health of these wetlands is owed to the stewardship and protection provided by the Bad River Band. Despite this protection, the sloughs are still vulnerable to external threats, most notably mining in the Penokee Hills at the top of the watershed, which could irreparably alter hydrology, water quality, and wildlife habitat."

A state bill containing a “streamlined” permitting process and what environmental groups called gutted environmental regulations for ferrous (iron) mining was signed into law by Republican Governor Scott Walker on March 11.

In the previous week, two hours into the State Assembly final floor debate on the bill, it was clear the Republican majority would pass the bill on to the governor.

During that session, in a noon news conference, Wiggins called the bill “a giveaway to an out-of-state corporation of Wisconsin’s lands and waters.” He stated that the slow poisoning of his people with pollutants would be tantamount to genocide.

The specific bill language of primary concern to Democrats and the 11 Wisconsin tribal governments states, “that because of the fixed location of ferrous mineral deposits in the state, it is probable that mining those deposits will result in adverse impacts to wetlands and that, therefore, the use of wetlands for bulk sampling and mining activities, including the disposal or storage of mining wastes or materials, or the use of other lands for mining activities that would have a significant adverse impact on wetlands, is presumed to be necessary.”

In a Capital Times report, the bill’s lead author, Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-WI) stated, “The bill reflects the reality of mining. There are going to be some impacts to the environment above the iron ore body. If the law is challenged and ends up in court, the judge needs to know it was the Legislature’s intent to allow adverse (environmental) impacts. That way, a judge can’t find fault if the environment is impacted.”

The Bad River Band was never officially consulted on a government-to-government basis during the bill’s legislative process.

“Those types of statements are unbelievably damning in the sense that the tribes that are here today and the tribes that are up north within ceded territory are inextricably linked and connected to the waters and lands up there from a food source perspective to a cultural perspective to a lineage of history that equates ceded territory and our sovereign nations with those notions of being home. There’s so many different levels where the acknowledgment of environmental harm is. It’s just something that cannot be tolerated,” Wiggins said during the Assembly debate.

Walker’s official bill signing took place in Rhinelander, Wisconsin with a ceremonial signing in Milwaukee at a branch of Joy Global, Inc. Company executives and employees, legislators, and members of Operating Engineers Local 139 on-hand to stage the event had to wait over three hours for Walker’s arrival. Idle No More demonstrators from Milwaukee and Veterans for Peace were kept several hundred feet from the Joy Global plant campus entrance outside an iron-gated driveway.

“Today we are proud to see a future for our equipment in the Wisconsin Iron Range,” said Sean Major, executive vice president and General Counsel.

Joy Global CEO Mike Sutherlin announced his retirement three days after the bill was signed.

Walker stated that while he was thankful to legislators who passed the bill, the law was about the citizen faces behind his jobs initiative and that the mine would create sustainable jobs for generations.

“It’s not just about mining,” Walker said during the signing. “And this is going to be a good way of balancing both preserving our economic interests in moving these jobs forward and still doing it in a way that is environmentally sound.”

The due diligence performed by GOP legislators in terms of sound economic and environmental support of the bill utilized impact reporting that contained no cost-benefit analysis, and requests for core samples from Gogebic Taconite were denied to the band, precluding any transparent analysis of the environmental and tax giveaways the bill contained in terms of feasibility requirements of the mining company.

According to a 2005 study by iron-ore mining leading expert Peter Kakela of Michigan State University, tax incentives had no bearing on what state iron ore was mined in, once a complete feasibility study was done by a vertically integrated steel maker.

While Walker has repeatedly stated the project promises thousands of jobs, local mining equipment makers Joy Global and Caterpillar have refrained from making definite statements.

The governor’s mantra that “Wisconsin is Open for Business” is now becoming a concern to citizens in the western part of the state where more than 100 frack sand mines are proliferating. Wisconsin Public Radio reported on March 15 that Minnesota is considering a moratorium on frack sand mining until it can be better understood. Meanwhile, although the Wisconsin bill does not purportedly apply to anything but metallic mining, frack sand operators are beginning to blatantly ignore Wisconsin state permitting requirements.

Wiggins will be a panelist at the Minnesota Idle No More Environmental and Treaty Rights Symposium on March 22 at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

Donations for Bad River’s fight can be sent through the tribal government website or to the mailing address supplied at badriver-nsn.gov.

“This ecosystem is as good as what we have left in the state and in the world,” Wiggins said. “We all have an impact on the environment. We really have to humble ourselves. Environmental stewardship is a sacrifice.”