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Mining in the Penokee Hills

— Midwest Environmental Advocates is part of the legal team representing the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in their effort to protect the Penokee Range from an open-pit iron mine.

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Gogebic Taconite began bulk sampling at three sites in the Penokee Hills in early 2014. Throughout the company's bulk sampling application process, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe questioned the inadequacy of the company's information and asked more questions of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources about the impacts of bulk sampling in an environmentally sensitive area with a very complex hydrology and geology. See the Bad River document section below to read their comments.

Due to the mapping of abundant wetlands in the area and a decline in iron prices, Gogebic Taconite announced their plans to abandon its mining project application on March 24, 2015 and closed the company's office in Hurley, WI. The DNR is working with GTAC to wrap up the project and manage boreholes left by hydrology surveys.

In the fall of 2013, we shared some of the voices of people working to protect our natural resources from the environmental destruction of open-pit iron mining. Find the videos, portraits and stories on the Citizen Voices Matter page.

Case Summary

Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills are at risk

The Penokee Hills are a formation of land in Iron and Ashland Counties in Wisconsin’s iconic Northwoods. The Penokees are ecologically significant. The Penokees are the headwaters of the Bad River and the lakes, streams and wetlands throughout the complex ecological system all flow down into Lake Superior, the largest body of freshwater in the world. Another part of the ecosystem is the Kakagon Sloughs. The delicate, protected wetland was recognized by the Ramsar Convention as having international importance as a home for endangered species and act like a natural filter to benefit Lake Superior.

But the Penokee Hills and the Bad River Watershed is also significant to the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, a Tribe that lives at the foot of the Penokees near the freshwater lake. The Bad River Tribe negotiated treaties with the United States government in 1837, 1842 and 1854. Since then, the treaties reserved ceded territory rights to Tribal members to hunt, fish and gather the food that helps sustain the Tribe’s health and spiritual lives, including wild rice grown in the Kakagon Sloughs. These treaty rights have been the foundation of the sovereign nation’s work to protect this pristine wilderness for generations.

Iron mining deregulation in Wisconsin makes it harder to protect the water and land

In 2013, Wisconsin state legislators passed a law that exempted the iron mining industry from environmental protections and greatly reduced people’s ability to voice their concerns about the impacts of iron mining on the health of their land and water. At the center of Wisconsin’s debate was a proposal for an open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills by a Florida-based subsidiary of the Cline Corporation, Gogebic Taconite (GTAC).

The process of the iron mining deregulation law truly subverted democracy and marginalized the involvement of both Tribal and non-Tribal Wisconsin citizens. Official public hearings on the mining bill were limited and held 300 miles away from the communities that would be impacted by a mine. Voters from all around the state called, emailed and wrote letters to elected officials, but conservationist legislators were in the minority and couldn’t stop or even significantly modify the bill.

But worse, the influence of industry over the new law is undeniable. An analysis by the clean-government watch dog group, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, showed that pro-mining interests gave Governor Scott Walker and key state legislators nearly $16 million in campaign donations since 2010 when the push for the mining legislation started, which was 610 times more than mining opponents gave. The state’s largest industry association, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, was active in lobbying for the bill and critics accused the legislation’s sponsors of promoting legislation written by the mining company.

Open-pit iron mining is environmentally unsound

Unlike some of the underground iron mining that was common a century ago, open-pit iron mining has a larger and more destructive impact on the environment near the mine site. The drilling, blasting, crushing and processing activity of this industry impacts not just the land, but also the water and air. Groundwater pumping depletes the water tables and chemicals used in drilling can contaminate ground and surface water.

Blasting and pulverizing rock creates dust, and a recent controversy over asbestos minerals found at the proposed mine site is more cause for alarm over the impact of mining on air quality. Even the hydrology of the area would be impacted by the removal of the trees that cover the ridge and help reduce runoff and flooding during heavy rains and snow thaw. There hasn’t been an open-pit mine that hasn’t left significant environmental damage.

Beyond jobs vs. the environment

During the public hearing on the legislation, people who travelled from northern Wisconsin to testify against the mining proposal had a common request: we want a sustainable economy. Whether or not an iron mine would create jobs in Wisconsin is a compliated question that depends on the availability of skilled workers, changing demands and competion for heavy equipment made in Wisconsin, and a global market for iron. In contrast to the short-term jobs in mining, job creation in northern Wisconsin could be focused on economic development that is measured in generations, not just in years.

Diversified agriculture and livestock production, sustainable timber, tourism and recreation, local manufacturing, health care and education, and more could drive the local economy by conserving instead of damaging the environment. But an open-pit iron mine would destroy the very water, air and land that give Wisconsin’s pristine Northwoods its value.

But there is still hope for the Penokee Hills

Though the law that exempts iron mining from many of the environmental protections in Wisconsin and greatly limited the opportunities for citizens have a voice in how our water, air and land should be protected, there are still legal tools available for us to defend our natural resources.  Midwest Environmental Advocates is working with the Bad River Tribe and together, the legal team is committed to taking action at every step to ensure that people can use the power of the law to protect the Penokee Hills from destruction.

Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe Documents

Environmental Protection Agency Involvement

Chippewa Federation of Tribes' Letter to EPA - 404(c) Public Process Request

Chippewa Federation of Tribes' request that Environmental Protection Agency initiate a public process under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect treaty rights, aquatic resources, fisheries, wildlife, subsistence and public uses in the Bad River Watershed and western Lake Superior Basin from metallic mining, including a potential Gogebic Taconite mine.

Mining Application Responses

Bad River Tribe Natural Resources Department October 22, 2013 response to GTAC bulk sampling proposal

Bad River Tribe Natural Resources Department October 22, 2013 response to GTAC bulk sampling proposal materials submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on June 17, 2013 bulk sampling plan and July 28, 2013 response to DNR comments on the plan on July 2 and August 13.

Bad River Tribe Natural Resources Department December 9, 2013 response to GTAC’s revised plan

After GTAC submitted a revised bulk sampling plan, Bad River’s NRD identified unanswered questions from their previous comments on bulk sampling. Concerns about air and water quality testing, considerations for protecting threatened plant and wildlife species, and the need for more information on impacts to wetlands remain.

Bad River Tribe Natural Resources Department December 17, 2013 response to GTAC's stormwater permit for bulk sampling

Bad River Tribe Natural Resources Department December 17, 2013 response to GTAC stormwater permit for bulk sampling submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on December 2, 2013. The document oulines threats to the hydrology and animal and plant species of the region, concerns with the potential use of explosives for blasting during bulk sampling, lack of baseline soil and water quality monitoring by the permittee in the bulk sampling area, and the ineffective plans for erosion prevention and sediment control.


Bad River’s Letter to Sen. Tiffany and the mining committee on government-to-government consultation

February 1, 2013 letter from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe to Senator Tom Tiffany, co-chair of the Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue joint committee, expressing their concerns that the Wisconsin State Legislature failed to engage the Tribe in government-to-government consultation and conducted the AB1/SB1 public hearing process in a way to exclude the voices of Native American citizens.

Bad River’s Opposition to AB1/SB1: Changes in Mining Regulations Pose Risks to Public Health

Bad River Band press release from January 22, 2013 outlines the Tribe's continued objections to the move to weaken regulations for iron mining and why the Bad River Watershed and Penokee Hills are environmentally sensitive.

Bad River Tribe: Position on Proposed Penokee Hills Mine and 10 Principles for Regulatory Change

This position statement from September 2011 includes the Tribe's opposition to mining the Penokee Hills, but also lists the 10 principles upon which any future changes to Wisconsin legislation on mining industry regulation and permitting for sites across the state.

Bad River’s 2011 Opposition to AB 426 - The Bad Mining Bill

This is the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's official statement in opposition to AB 426, a 2011 Wisconsin Assembly bill that undermined existing mining laws and sought to fast-track a mine in the Penokee Hills.