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Tribal Leaders Oppose Proposed Iron Ore Mine

Susan Bence

A report in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel indicates Republican legislative leaders in Wisconsin plan to introduce new legislation to streamline the permit process for mining in Wisconsin. New assembly speaker Robin Vos said such legislation could come as early as next week.

A similar bill – AB426 - was defeated in the state senate this year, but Vos and other Republican leaders are optimistic that with revisions, such a bill would see passage - which could pave the way for a new iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.

But the bill faces fierce opposition from leaders of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose land is very close to the site of the proposed mine. Those leaders came to Milwaukee yesterday to preemptively rally opposition to it on environmental grounds.

Bad River Chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr., says this particular area is inappropriate for a mine.

"For us in Bad River, who are downwind and downstream of this, it truly is a matter of survival," he says. "All of that is what we want to talk about - it's much deeper and much longer than the manufacturing of a piece of earth-moving equipment."

Environmental impacts

Wiggins says the area is a natural habitat for coyotes, wolves, beavers and muskrats. Moreover, he says it boasts Class A trout streams, wall-eye and brook trout fishing, and one of the last remaining naturally occurring spawning beds for Lake Superior sturgeon.

“It's all driven, you know, like this big churling, whirling engine, it's all driven by clean water,” Wiggins says.

Supporters say expanding mining opportunities would bring much-needed jobs to an economically challenged region.

But Wiggins says an existing economy based on tourism already exists – and would be threatened by the environmental repercussions of a nearby iron ore mine.

“They come up to our area because as we all know for a lot of the people in this nation, the things we have are true luxuries as it pertains to Lake Superior, shore lines, clean water, ability to go after fish,” he says. “Those are luxuries.”

The implications in obliterating those headwaters of the Bad River Watershed are perpetual. -Bad River Band chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr.

Visit to Milwaukee

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians boasts about 7,000 members. The Band lives on a 124,000-acre reservation on the south shore of Lake Superior, in Ashland and Iron Counties.

Wiggins says Bad River Band representatives came to Milwaukee Monday and Tuesday to try to educate residents about how a mine could threaten both the environment – and its people – through resulting acid mine drainage, mercury production and polluted waters.

“There's, I guess, an effort with our trip down here to Milwaukee to look past notions of money to look past notions of little tiny timeframes like 20 years, because the implications of AB426, the implications in obliterating those headwaters of the Bad River Watershed are perpetual,” he says. “We can try and ignore it all we want, but there's future generations of Bad River people, people in the north land that are going to sit there saddled with having the very thing that makes us rich right now in real time, taken from us and confronted with the question, ‘Well, what now?’ in terms of living a good life, in terms of trying to make a life up there happen.”

He says there is real potential to harm people, particularly children, if changes to mining regulation are made in Wisconsin because of the heavy metals that can potentially make it into the environment.

“If it isn't attractive to rally to try to save us as a people, I would at least encourage them to rally to save those hills, and those waterways, and those trout, those spawning grounds in the Bad River, and those river ways because they're unbelievably awesome,” he says.

Calling on the Legislature

Wiggins says even though public hearings were “overwhelmingly…full of opposition,” Wisconsin lawmakers continue to push for this legislation, which he says was drafted by mining interests.

“Madison legislators have the political might right now to essentially put forth whatever they want,” he says, “and I definitely respect that and acknowledge that. What I’d like to see is a recognition and again an examination of how catastrophic that project would be to our nation and as a result, leadership stepping up to say, ‘This particular place shouldn't be mined.’”

He says that mining in the Bad River is not something the Band will “negotiate or consult on,” and while they do not mean to be adversarial, he declines to comment on whether litigation is an option.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>