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Bad River Tribal Chairman Questions Wisconsin State Legislators Mining Consultation Practices

A lack of government-to-government consultation during a reworked 2012 mining bill has increased tensions between Bad River and Wisconsin officials.

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa are wondering what happened to government-to-government consultation when it comes to the Wisconsin State legislature—which allegedly rewrote the 2012 state mining bill with input of iron-ore mining company Gogebic Taconite. “One industrial corporation has written legislation that weakens protections for wetlands, navigable waters, and groundwater in the State of Wisconsin, aimed at promoting one project,” Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Lake Superior tribal chairman wrote in a February 1 letter, to Sen. Thomas Tiffany (R-Wisc.) “This project would pollute the air and water of a Native American community, with financial benefits accruing to wealthier, non-tribal communities.” The 2012 bill was proposed again on January 9, 2013.

Gogebic Taconite, owned by coal-mining magnate Chris Cline, had direct input into the writing of the 2013 bill weeks before it was made available to the public, according to One Wisconsin Now, a statewide non-profit, non-partisan communications network specializing in advancing progressive leadership and values. The group claims it has secured bill drafts that were shared with the company, along with seven e-mails containing requests from the mining company of numerous changes to the bill.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign of Madison, Wisconsin has documented that special interests played a part in looser mining regulations that would allow Gogebic Taconite to open an open pit iron ore mine. Those interests have donated more than $15.6 million to the Republican-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Yet Bad River has never officially been consulted. “As a Native Sovereign Nation, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa enjoys the right to engage in government-to-government consultation on matters of law and policy that affect its interests,” Wiggins wrote, citing systematic exclusion of his community’s consultative rights at the only hearing held January 23. The hearing was announced four days prior to it being held. Despite the short notice, tribal oposition to the mining made the meeting, with representatives of the Bad River, Red Cliff (a six-hour drive), La Courte Oreilles and Lac du Flambeau bands of Lake Superior Chippewa, Ho-Chunk and Menominee. Not everyone was allowed to speak, Wiggins said, and those who were able to talk were allowed two minutes each.

When Gloria Rodriquez, Bad River, got the microphone, she said, “Two minutes to plead for my life is not enough. You are putting a price on our heads. If you’re not honoring treaties, then you should give back the land. Enough is enough, we will idle no more and stay united,” according to the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.

"The Republican legislature limited public testimony on the bill at the single hearing they were willing to have and the ostensible legislative authors have refused to publicly answer questions,” Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now said in a release. “Yet records show Gov. Walker and Republican legislators gave special access to the mining company.”

The bill relaxes and fast-tracks environmental permitting for iron ore mining and incorporates previous legislation which relaxed state laws against wetland mitigation. At the time the wetlands legislation was passed, assurances were given that it would not be used for mining legislation, according to co-author Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Wisc.), whose deciding vote defeated the mining legislation in 2012.

However, Gogebic Taconite has proposed the construction of the world’s largest open pit iron ore mine, in the headwaters of the Penokee Hills, six miles upstream from the Bad River reservation border. The original legislation to enable the project introduced last year was defeated by one vote. The re-proposed bill was highlighted in Walker’s state of the state address January 15. The legislation is scheduled for Assembly and Senate committee votes on February 6 with final voting scheduled for March.

Wiggins, mine concerned scientists and environmentalists say the mine has great potential to adversely affect the tribe’s water and wild rice resources as well as the entire Bad River watershed, which feeds Lake Superior.

Many citizen and environmental groups, in addition to Bad River, have standing for a legal challenge, should the bill pass, according to Dennis Grzezinski of Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit legal firm in Madison, depending on the final bill's language.

On January 8, Wiggins called for rock samples from the proposed iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties be made public so citizens and lawmakers can judge the potential harm the waste rock could have. He submitted his request to the Environmental Protection Agency to require Gogebic Taconite to release the samples, and plans to make the same request to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Gogebic Taconite President, Bill Williams said he agrees the samples should be made public but only after his company has filed an application to mine the area and that he doesn’t see sulfide levels at potential threat levels.

Taconite iron ore mines do not boast a spotless record when it comes to leaking pollutants. The Sierra Club surveyed compliance records of nine taconite mines in Michigan and Minnesota from 2004 through 2012 showing acid mine drainage, the killing of wild rice beds, and air quality violations. Fines spanned more than $2.1 million, with more than $10.5 million spent for clean-up and repairs.

While state government officials are pushing for more mining, local residents in Northern Wisconsin have been pursuing community economic development based on community assets and a main focus is restoring sustenance, or food security, which depends on a clean environment and clean water, according to Pete Rasmussen of the Penokee Hills Education Project in Ashland.

Wiggins has been reaching out to the general public by criss-crossing the state since the beginning of the year, attempting to explain that water is life and that his community has sustenance rights. He gave the keynote address on February 1 at the 7th Annual Wisconsin Local Food Summit at Northland College in Superior, Wisconsin where a broad section of local food system development stakeholders met, including farmers, ag educators, USDA representatives, healthcare workers and community gardeners.

The Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin will be hosting a Food Sovereignty Summit in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 15-18. Additional sponsors are First Nations Development Institute, the Intertribal Agriculture Council and Northeast Wisconsin Technical Institute. Tracks are sustainable agriculture, community development and business management, financing and marketing.

The Food Sovereignty Summit’s philosophy statement reads: “Our ancestors discovered the value of creating an environment to maximize our sustenance. Like the Three Sisters, we will create a structure of collaboration and support for all Nation’s people to flourish.”

Now, if they could only get Gogebic Taconite to collaborate.