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Keweenaw Bay Indians' Fight Against Michigan Mine Detailed in Series

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As Kennecott Eagle Minerals lurches toward completing its plan to begin mining copper and nickel from tribal lands in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula beginning in 2014, the fight on the part of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa is far from over.

The band’s fight to stop the mining dates back years, and the history of the tribe’s objections and the reasons behind its opposition make a great read as part five of a series by the website Environmental Health News (EHN). For this environmental justice series—Pollution, Poverty, People of Color—EHN sent reporters out to seven communities, including this one, to examine how they are coping in the face of environmental threats brought on by development.

In the case of the Keweenaw, Kennecott officials have assured tribal leaders, environmentalists and others opposing the mine that it will not repeat mistakes that have caused tailings pond leaks and other mishaps and contamination in the past, at sites elsewhere held by other companies, according to this fifth offering in the series. But trust is low, especially given the fact that Kennecott's parent company is Rio Tinto, of Superfund fame. As such it even became an election issue when Ellis Boal, running for a seat in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District against U.S. Representative Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, invoked it.

“I will work to stop fracking, global warming, U.S. support of war in Iran, U.S. support of Israel, and Rio Tinto's unsafe metal sulfide mine at Eagle Rock in the Upper Peninsula,” the Green Party candidate said in the week leading up to Election Day 2012, according to The Mining Journal.

The preparation alone has been environment-changing, said Emily Whittaker, executive director of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, an environmental group opposing the mine, to EHN. The mere widening of roads to allow trucks is the most likely culprit to explain increased sedimentation in the Salmon Trout River, she told EHN. This is especially of concern given that the mine will be drilled under the Salmon Trout River.

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It all comes down to water, the lifeblood of any people, as the tribal leaders say.

“The indigenous view on water is that it is a sacred and spiritual entity,” Jessica Koski, mining technical assistant for the Keweenaw Bay community, told EHN. “Water gives us and everything on Earth life.”

Most painful to the tribe is the loss of unfettered access to the sacred Eagle Rock, a spiritual gathering place that the Keweenaw know as Migi zii wa sin. The company agreed not to block tribal members’ access to the sacred site. But it didn’t make any promises as to how that access would be granted. Thus what now greets Keweenaw people, or anyone, trying to reach Eagle Rock even for ceremonial purposes is a barbed-wire fence, a berm and the need to don bright green and red vests and wear safety goggles. They must also show tribal I.D. and be escorted by company officials, according to EHN. This and the water issues do not sit well with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Band’s 3,552 members.

“We used to drive up freely without permission or being escorted, now there is a high berm and a barbed wire fence,” Koski told EHN. “We aren’t able to stay the night or do any traditional fasting. The whole integrity of the site is disturbed. But it is still very sacred to us."

Read Sacred Water, New Mine: A Michigan Tribe Battles a Global Corporation, and see the full series, Poverty, Pollution, People of Color, at EHN's website.