Tribes turn out to oppose mining bill, Wisconsin

Date of publication: 
12 January 2012

HURLEY — American Indian tribes came out strongly against a mining bill that would streamline the permitting process for a proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin, telling a legislative hearing Wednesday that mining could irreparably harm the pristine region.

Members of the Bad River, Red Cliff and other tribes attended the hearing, which drew an overflow crowd of about 600 people

The Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business held the first public hearing in northern Wisconsin on the bill. The meeting was scheduled following criticism of the previous hearing being held near Milwaukee, about 300 miles away from where the mine would be.

Patricia Aiken-Buffalo, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Chippewa, spoke against the bill. She said she worries about what pollution would do to water and to rice, which she said is harvested by tribal members and is needed to feed their children.

“I have a 2-1/2-year-old cousin, Stella. All I could think about is will she have water when she’s 7? I could just hear her cries. If this mine goes through the water will look like this glass,” Aiken-Buffalo said, holding up a glass of dark water that she had altered to illustrate her point.

Backers of the mine say it would bring more than 700 mining jobs to an economically depressed area and create 2,000 ancillary jobs. But opponents say they don’t believe responsible mining is possible and that the bill was written to cater to the needs of Gogebic Taconic, which hopes to open the mine in the Penokee Hills near Lake Superior.

Gogebic President Bill Williams has said the bill “is not issuing a permit” but rather “issuing a process for the DNR to implement.”

“Environmentally, this bill is a disaster,” said Tom Maulson, president of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Indians. “It is page after page of deregulation, giving a ‘boom and bust industry’ free rein to rape the environment that we all depend on. Our tribe does not support putting workers into jobs that pose safety and health risks.”

If approved, the bill would require the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to approve or deny an iron-ore mine application within 360 days.
The bill also would eliminate any challenges to the DNR’s permitting decisions and would limit who can sue over permit violations.

The bill also would lessen standards for water withdrawals and redirect half of the state tax on iron ore sales to the state instead of municipalities where it is currently earmarked.

Many of those who backed the bill did not support the 50-50 tax split.

“I believe that 100 percent of this (tax) money needs to come into Iron and Ashland counties,” Wayne Nasi of Hurley said. “That money would be our lifeblood for our communities. We need that money to come up here. We could put a percentage of that money aside to clean up existing areas we know have been polluted. We could make the northwoods even more pristine.”

Supporters of the bill touted the jobs that a new mine would bring.

“People in Wisconsin are crying for jobs. The people of Ashand and Iron county are dying for jobs. We’re sitting in Iron County, a county that lost nearly 14 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010,” said Wisconsin’s State Treasurer Kurt Schuller. He said the bill “holds the cure” for the area’s economic woes.

Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald has said he hopes to vote on the bill Jan. 19. Passing the iron-mining bill is one of the top priorities of the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker.