Meetings begin between tribes, EPA to discuss halting Northern Wisconsin mine
For the second time this year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is being asked by Native American tribes to use its powers under the Clean Water Act to halt a mine and preserve the quality and habitat of nearby waterways.
The EPA, at the request of Alaskan tribes, commercial fishermen and conservationists, issued a proposal in July that would limit the activity of a proposed gold and copper mine, known as Pebble Mine, next to Bristol Bay, according to a Washington Post article. Bristol Bay is home to a large fishery that supports nearly half of the world’s sockeye salmon.
Dennis McLerran, the EPA administrator for Alaska, said the agency had concluded that even a mine much smaller than the one being proposed would produce “almost unfathomable amounts of rocks” which “posed significant risks to the fragile ecosystem” of Bristol Bay, according to the Washington Post.
On Wednesday, northern Wisconsin’s Chippewa Federation of Tribes led a group of tribal leaders from Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to meet with federal regulators in Michigan and discuss halting the Gogebic Taconite mine in northern Wisconsin.
“The EPA is working with tribes here and in Alaska on a political, sovereign level,” said Mark Anthony Rolo, a legal department spokesman for the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa. “This isn’t about granting special rights to tribes, as many people would think. This is government to government business.”
The meeting comes three months after the band of tribes sent a letter to EPA officials in Washington and Chicago.
“We are formally requesting that you initiate a public process to protect our treaty rights as well as the aquatic resources, fisheries, wildlife, subsistence and public uses in the Bad River Watershed from metallic mining, including a potential Gogebic Taconite mine,” said Bad River Band chair Mike Wiggins Jr. in a May 27 letter to EPA officials. “Such a request is not unprecedented and is well within your authority.”
The proposed mine is located in ceded territory, an area that covers roughly the upper third of Wisconsin. That means the tribes located in this area have specific rights over the natural resources, including hunting and fishing rights.
“The actions of the mining company and the Wisconsin’s regulatory process … leave us with little assurance that science and law will be wielded in a transparent and just manner to protect our lands and waters,” said Wiggins in the letter to the EPA.
Lac du Flambeau President Tom Maulson said in a statement that “they’re going into these meetings with their eyes wide open,” according to a Wisconsin Public Radio report.
Gogebic Taconite is drilling for ore samples in an effort to receive a permit from the state to build a 4.5-mile-long open pit, iron ore mine. If built, it would be the country’s largest.
The mine is located in the Penokee Range of northern Wisconsin and will stretch across portions of Ashland and Iron counties. The streams and rivers from the proposed mining site drain into sacred Native American rice beds and Lake Superior, the world’s largest fresh water source.
Like tribes and conservationists who opposed Alaska’s Pebble Mine due to the effect waste would have on waterways that flow into Bristol Bay, Wisconsin tribes are arguing the EPA must use a section of the Clean Water Act to intervene and preserver the waterways that drain into Lake Superior.
The mine in northern Wisconsin has been controversial from the start. The state rewrote its mining law, with the help of Gogebic, and it was passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature in 2013.
Gov. Scott Walker, who is seeking reelection, is a staunch supporter of the state’s new mining bill and the estimated $1.5 billion project. He cited the ability of the mine to create jobs when he signed the bill into law.
Tribes and conservationists vocally opposed the project, with Gogebic at one point hiring armed guards to protect the property and its employees from protesters. The tribes routinely said they would seek intervention from the EPA to halt the mine if the state began the process to issue a mining permit.