Hundreds of Wisconsin residents, including many representing Native American tribes, traveled to Madison Wednesday for a hearing on a controversial bill intended to fast-track construction of an open-pit iron mine that is being pushed by Governor Walker and Republican legislators.
“This is a mining company funded by multinationals and out-of-state company executives coming in to prey on the landscapes and the waterways of Wisconsin,” said Mike Wiggins, Jr., tribal chair of the Bad River Band of Chippewa, referring to a Florida-based iron mining firm that hopes to operate the open-pit taconite mine in northern Wisconsin. If the bill passes, Wiggins said, “a small, indigenous tribal community” will “benefit the least and be impacted the most.”
As The UpTake previously reported, an easing of mining regulations that tribal and environmental advocates fear will lead to environmental degradation is a top priority for Gov. Scott Walker and Republican leaders in the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly. Wednesday’s joint hearing on the legislation was the only hearing that is planned on the legislation, which is nearly identical to a mining bill that failed to pass the Senate by a single vote during the last legislative session.
This legislation is being pushed as an effort to streamline the permit process for a proposed mine in the Penokee hills in Ashland and Iron counties in Northern Wisconsin. Critics argue that the bill is a product of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative front group that has sponsored corporate-friendly legislation across the country, and that it is heavily influenced by Gogebic Taconite, a Florida-based start-up that holds mineral rights to 21,000 acres of scenic land in Ashland County. Tribal authorities argue that mining in the area would violate Federal land-use treaties with the Bad River Band.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, have said they are aware there likely will be environmental lawsuits brought if this legislation passes, but say they plan to move forward with it anyway.
Wiggins, the tribal chair, says the Bad River Band was left out of the discussions when the legislation was being crafted. He called the mining plan a “giveaway” and a “violation of the Wisconsin constitution and form of the public trust doctrine…so egregious” that the Bad River Band is ready to go to court to oppose it. “Who are they serving as representatives of the citizens? Because this has all been put together for Gogebic Taconite and their billionaire philanthropist Chris Cline,” Wiggins said of the Republican determination to push this legislation through.
Opponents of the bill say the new regulations would weaken Wisconsin environmental protections and exempting mining companies from environmental and public health regulations that other Wisconsin industries must follow.
“I’m here to protest the mining bill,” said tribal member Gloria Rodriguez, who came to Madison for the hearing. “it exempts the mining company from environmental standards. Allowing it to pollute our Bad River watershed, which will eventually destroy our wild rice beds. So I’m here to protest it and let them know that our future generations are at stake here if this bill is passed.”
Other aspects of the legislation drawing criticism are the allowance of a mining company to dump toxic waste into wetlands, ability to contaminate groundwater, and unlimited allowance of taking water from lakes, rivers and streams.
“We need clean water to live,” said Philomena Kebec, attorney for the Bad River Band, whose reservation is downstream from the proposed mine. “We have enough iron to live, we don’t need that much iron to live. We only need a teeny, tiny bit of iron to live in our bodies. Every day, we need to drink water,”
Proponents of the bill claim that development of the open-pit iron ore mine would create desperately needed jobs — as many as 2,000 to construct the mine, and up to 700 jobs to operate it.
The public hearing lasted from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with many traveling from Northern Wisconsin since there is not a public hearing in the would-be affected area. The hearing room was packed, and two over-flow rooms were also filled, and additional protesters stood in Capitol corridors. Many people waited hours to testify, receiving only two minutes of time to speak to the hearing, which was scheduled only four days before it was held.
One Madison-area lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Bret Hulsey, called the 12-hour hearing “a kangaroo court.”
“The process has been described by many as a sham,” said Paul DeMain of the Lac Courte Oreilles Mining Impact Committee. “They call a hearing four days ago, Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock they announced it, in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the week. Three hundred miles from the area where the impacts are going to come. Why they are afraid to come to Northern Wisconsin, to speak with those residents, to hear their concerns?”
Though this created a barrier for many, hundreds still came to the Capitol.
“Hundreds of people traveled, got up at 5 o’clock this morning to come testify at 7 or 8 o’clock at night and were given two minutes to testify,” said Frank Koehn, from Ashland County. “That is the strength, everyone doing a little bit. Everybody doing what they can to preserve their homeland and where we live.”