American Indians, Evironmentalists Fight Weakened Wisconsin Mining Regulations

More than 350 people gathered in the cold at the Wisconsin State Capitol this week to protest a proposed change in state mining regulations that environmentalists and Native Americans fear will pollute streams and waters near Lake Superior. The Sunday protest in Madison, organized by Idle No More, was part of a growing global movement in solidarity with First Nations people of Canada and rights for American Indians intended to help safeguard tribal rights and resources.

“Idle No More is a movement to empower tribal governments to act the way they see fit to protect tribal citizens and protect lands and resources, like game and fish,” said Arvina Martin, one of the organizers of the rally. “We can’t sit back and let things go like this without a fight. We need to protect resources for our children. We all are mothers, we all think about what kind of world we’re passing onto our children and what kind of access to resources they’ll have for their families.”

People from across Wisconsin and neighboring states joined the rally to protest the proposed changes to mining regulation that many say will cause irreversible and detrimental damage to waterways and land. This legislation is being pushed to allow Gogebic Taconite, a Florida based company, to start the application process for an iron mine in Ashland and Iron Counties in Northern Wisconsin.

“Mining is not about creating jobs, it is about creating wealth for the mining companies and it is about destroying our health and Mother Earth,” said Diana Miller, the American Indian Caucus Chair for the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “Water is sacred; we cannot create it.”

Since Gogebic has not yet filed an application with Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), information about the impact this proposed mine would have on the environment has not been made public. But the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation lies downstream of the potential mining project, believes the project will release toxic sulfides into the waterways that flow towards them. Strong opposition to this mine also comes from environmental groups in Wisconsin.

“We are opposed to relaxing the protections we have over clean air and water and taking away local control,” said Tom Stolp of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “Popular opinion is against the weakening of clean air and clean water standards; public opinion is against this bill.”

As the Wisconsin Legislature begins its 101st session, drastic changes to iron mining regulations in the state are a top priority for Republicans who control both legislative chambers and the Governor’s office. Republicans control the Assembly with a 59-39 margin and hold an 18-15 margin in the Senate.

Last year, Republicans failed to pass an overhaul of mining regulations in Wisconsin, effectively removing iron mining projects from current state mining regulations. This proposal was voted down in the Senate by just a single vote, with Republican Dale Schultz (17th District) being the lone Republican dissenter.

Robin Vos (R-63rd District), Speaker of the Assembly, said changes to mining regulations is his first priority as the session gets underway, and that the measure will likely pass the Assembly later this week. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-13th district) is predicting the Senate will approve the overhaul at the beginning of March. Vos said at a press conference that the legislation introduced will be nearly identical to last year’s legislation, but that a public meeting on the legislation will be held later this month.

The mining legislation has been criticized as a product of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is partnership of state legislators and corporate leaders with over 2,000 legislature members and 300 corporate leaders. Legislators are given scholarships to attend conferences to discuss potential legislative initiatives. Ninety eight percent of funding comes from corporations.

Both Vos and Fitzgerald are ALEC members, with Vos being ALEC’s Wisconsin state chair. More information about ALEC’s influence on the WIsconsin Legislature can be found here.

Under the terms of the proposed legislation, the Wisconsin DNR would have to approve or deny an application within 420 days. No previous time limit existed. If the DNR failed to act within that time frame, the permit would be automatically approved. No person would be allowed to contest a case hearing, challenge a permit or file a lawsuit against the DNR alleging the agency had failed to comply with the law in the permit process. The new law would also supersede any existing state environmental law, overturning decades of legal precedent. In addition, a company could ask not to be held financially responsible for an area degraded or environmentally devastated by its mine, 20 years after the mine closed.

“They [mining corporations] provide false hope — it is cruel,” said Sarah LittleRedFeather Kalmanson, another organizer of the Idle no More Rally.

Tracey Pollock

Tracey Pollock, a native of River Falls, Wis., studied journalism at UW-River Falls and finished her education at UW-Milwaukee with a focus in sociology. She is interested in covering social justice issues and shedding light on issues in a way that corporate media will not undertake. Pollock lives in Milwaukee, where generations of her family have resided. She enjoys the local music scene, bicycling and camping.

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