A proposed iron ore mine is running into opposition from a Wisconsin tribe. Bad River Ojibwe tribal chair Mike Wiggins met with Governor Scott Walker on Wednesday to discuss the proposed open-pit iron ore mine on tribally ceded territory in northern Wisconsin. But even before the meeting took place, Wiggins reiterated the band’s opposition, which he first stated in April’s annual State of the Tribes address at the Capitol. “It is clear to us that there’s no way that an open-pit mine in the Bad River watershed can be operated without significant environmental impacts to our lands, our waters, and ultimately our people,” Wiggins said during a press conference in the state Senate parlor.
The proposed mine — the largest ever in Wisconsin — would employ as many as 2000 construction workers and hundreds of miners in the Penokee Range region of northern Wisconsin. But tribal officials fear it would permanently contaminate the pristine Bad River watershed. “This is where we live,” said Tribal Council member Frank Connors. “We can’t just pack up and move. Our land is our culture, our history which runs deep. We came here today to protect it.”
Wiggins and Glenn Stoddard, an Eau Claire attorney retained by the tribe, said any rewrite of state mining law should be based on sound science and sound legal principles. “Not on emotion and the desperation of people in poverty, or the profiteering of private corporations,” Wiggins said. “We want to bring this debate down to the level of real detail” said Stoddard. “Not the mantra of jobs versus the environment or jobs versus tribes. Let’s talk about science, let’s talk about law, if we’re going to change the law.”
Wiggins used the press conference to unveil a list of ten principles which the tribe believes any change to the law should incorporate. The first is that “the definition of iron mining should be clearly set forth to exclude any project proposal that has the potential to cause acid mine drainage.” Reached at his office in Hurley, Gogebic Taconite president Bill Williams said he couldn’t comment on today’s press conference but that the tribe’s position appeared basically unchanged since Wiggins made his address to the legislature earlier this year. “We’re just sitting in the dark up here, waiting for someone to turn the lights on,” he said, adding that the company does not intend to request weakened environmental safeguards.
While the prospect of jobs in economically hard hit Ashland and Iron counties resonates with many people in the region, Wiggins argued that the area’s relatively unspoiled environment and resources are equally important to many, tribal members and nonmembers alike. “I see these guys braving first ice in the Spring with their trucks out on Lake Superior,” he said. “Those guys care about the water, they care about fish. And ultimately, if educated and made aware, they are going to care very much about the mercury plume that’s associated with taconite mining.”
State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is expected to announce the membership soon, of a bipartisan committee which will review any proposed revisions to state mining law. An earlier legislative draft of changes was never introduced as a bill.