Faced with growing citizen opposition, Gogebic Taconite may be wavering in its plans to build one of the world’s biggest open pit iron ore mines in the pristine Penokee Mountains in Northern Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported on September 5 that the company announced it is pushing back its application for a state mining permit by several months.
The proposed mine site covers both Ashland and Iron counties. Although Iron County leaders favor the mine, Ashland County recently passed a mining permit ordinance that would “reduce the productive life of the mine,” according to Bill Seitz, GTAC spokesperson.
Other events may also be dampening GTAC’s longtime commitment to the controversial project.
As reported by ICTMN on July 16, the Wisconsin Federation of tribes planned a meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, asking the Agency to use the 404c portion of the Clean Water Act to stop the mine located on the edge of the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation.
Native Alaskans recently used a similar tactic to stop the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay.
According to Wisconsin Public Radio, Bad River tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. asked the EPA to use the authority of the Clean Water Act to stop the mine during the semi-annual tribal meeting held in Michigan with the Midwest Regional Administrator of the EPA from August 20-22. Several of the more than 20 tribal leaders who attended the meeting said they were happy with the discussions and hopeful. EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman declined to comment.
Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribal chair Mic Isham told WPR that he told the agency it needs to collect more data on the potential cumulative impact of the mine.
“Today was like a little bitty lightning flash in what will be a very cleansing thunderstorm, I think,” Wiggins said of the meeting.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who pushed for changes in state mining laws that would allow the GTAC mine to proceed, is at the heart of a criminal investigation for accepting a secret $700,000 donation from GTAC during his 2012 recall election. According to the Milwaukee Journal, Walker pushed his donors to funnel millions of dollars in campaign donations into the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a pro-Walker group directed by his campaign advisor.
Although no charges have been filed by Milwaukee County prosecutors against Walker, hundreds of pages of documents released during the investigation show that Walker’s team solicited donations from real estate developer Donald Trump, industrialist billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and others. Walker denies any wrongdoing.
David Rifkin, attorney for Wisconsin Club for Growth, said that records provided “no evidence” of wrongdoing and added that there is no proof that the organization made “any attempt to circumvent campaign-finance limits.”
According to Source Watch, Wisconsin Club for Growth’s board of directors includes Eric O’Keefe, who has strong ties to the Koch brothers. The Koch brothers are key contributors to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) a non-profit organization that has been linked with pushing state legislation that is especially friendly to corporate interests.
The Washington Post reported in March that the Koch brothers are using their money to influence hyper-local political races such as the Iron County Board elections in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, distributed flyers to Iron County voters depicting seven board candidates as “anti-mining radicals.”
According to The New York Times, the idea behind Americans for Prosperity is “to embed staff members in a community, giving conservative advocacy a permanent local voice.” AFT has more than 200 full-time paid staff members in at least 32 states.
In a now famous 2012 Palm Beach Post article, David Koch spoke of his financial support of Walker when the politician was facing a recall vote and battling with public unions.
“We’re helping him as we should,” he said at the time. “We’ve gotten pretty good at this over the years. We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.”
According to the Palm Beach Post, Koch “has become the face of conservative America’s obsession with weakening organized labor.”
The standoff between big mining interests and tribes and local citizens has gained worldwide attention. The battle was recently featured in Al Jazeera’s Fault Line series.
In the 30-minute film, “Wisconsin Mining Standoff,” Al Jazeera tells how on March 11, 2013, Walker signed legislation that rewrote the state's iron mining laws, paving the way for Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) to dig a $1.5 billion open-pit mine in the pristine woods of the Penokee mountain range. The mine, which could eventually reach 22-miles in length, provoked an immediate standoff. On one side is GTAC and its supporters anxious for jobs in an area with unemployment double the national average. On the other stand the tribes, residents and political leaders intent on preserving the land and protecting the water from contamination. Fault Lines follows the unfolding battle on the ground and traces the way money and power have influenced the laws that will determine whether and how this mine gets built.
The film is being shown in public forums throughout the region.
Iron County Board voted in March to eject members of the Harvest Camp Education Learning Project Camp HELP from public land maintaining that the camp violated a county ordinance limiting camping in an area to 14 days. Mining opponents camped at HELP occupied the site for 11 months in protest of the mine, calling attention to treaty rights and awareness of natural resources in the area.
Camp administrator Larry Ackley and his family, however, maintain a constant presence across the road from the original site on private land and carry on the message of sustainable living in the forest.
Terri Hansen contributed to this article.