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Iron mining in the Penokee Hills, USA


Description:

In November 2010, Gogebic Taconite (G-Tac), a subsidiary of The Cline Group, announced plans for a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in the pristine Penokee Mountains in Northern Wisconsin. The open pit mine would sprawl over four miles of privately-held managed forest land [1].  Open pit iron mining has a larger and more destructive impact on the environment than underground mining. The water, air, and land are impacted by drilling, blasting, crushing, and processing activities of this industry [2]. G-Tac’s mine proposal included two pits as deep as 1,000 feet that would produce about 8 million tons of finished taconite annually [3]. Despite the promise of hundreds of mining jobs and promised economic benefits from the company, this project ignited one of the largest environmental battles in decades, with opponents expressing concerns over the effect the mine would have on the Bad River watershed [4].   Many of the opponents included tribes. The planned area of the mine was located directly over the Bad River Watershed through which many streams flow directly into Lake Superior and through the famed wild rice beds on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation [3].   There are two primary concerns the tribe has: they were not consulted or included in any of the decision-making related to the mine proposal, and numerous environmental issues the mine presented.  In February 2013, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe sent a letter to Senator Tom Tiffany expressing their concerns that the Wisconsin State Legislature failed to engage the Tribe in government-to-government consultation and conducted the public hearing process in a way to exclude the voices of Native American citizens [5].  That year, the State Senate had one public hearing in January regarding the Bad River Watershed Destruction Act which was passed in March 2013 and gave innumerable protections to G-Tac. It demolished environmental safeguards related to mining, eliminated public input, reduced revenues to local communities, and rushed the permit review process [6].

Two studies published in 2012 found that the mine would cause severe environmental implications. A February 2012 report suggested that over a 35 year life span, the mine would produce waste rock that could form a hill 500 feet high and 1.5 miles long, and tailings that, if stacked evenly over 3,750 acres of land leased by G-Tac from Iron County, would be 47 feet deep [7]. A July 2012 geological study by Lawrence University researchers found that the first phase of the mine alone would produce nearly 2.5 billion pounds of sulfur from pyrite in the waste rock, which would produce sulfuric acid and sulfates when exposed to air and water.  Acid mine drainage would leach other heavy metals present in waste rock including arsenic, copper, mercury, and zinc as well as phosphorous - all major water pollutants [8].   Environmental concerns and being left out of the public hearing process reflected the long-existing injustice of Native American reservations being disproportionately impacted by mining, both ecologically and economically, and being treated as lawless zones by mining corporations [1].

Concerned citizens responded by protesting at the proposed mine site, setting up educational booths, monitoring G-Tac’s bulk sampling activities, and writing letters to representatives and the President of the United States. In 2013, one of the tribes had established an educational camp near the mining site to draw attention to how the mine would violate its treaty rights, as well as to highlight sustainable alternatives to mining. A minor incident with protesters led G-Tac to hire an out-of-state  private security firm which sent armed guards to patrol the mine site [9].  Six tribal leaders sought redress from the federal government in August by sending a letter to the President asking him to direct the Department of Interior to prevent the construction of the mine, citing their claims that the mine would infringe on their treaty rights.   Due to mapping of abundant wetlands in the area [10] and a decline in iron prices, G-Tac announced their plans to abandon its mining project application on March 24, 2015 and closed the company’s office. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) received a preapplication withdrawal letter from G-Tac and will continue to work with the company to complete necessary work on the site to ensure the site is properly maintained and environmentally stable.  As of March 24th, all Managed Forest Law land that was previously temporarily closed to public access is now reopened to the public for hunting, fishing, hiking, sight-seeing, and cross-country skiing [11].  Even though it is only a temporary success for the tribes, the mining debate helped create new and surprising alliances between tribal groups and local citizens.  Opponents of the mine worked to educate county board members and local citizens about the real human cost of the mine [3].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Iron mining in the Penokee Hills, USA
Country:translation missing: en.countries.united_states_of_america
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict: 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Mineral ore exploration
Specific commodities:Land
Iron ore
Water

Project Details and Actors

Project details:

The proposed 4.5 mile wide mine would have produced 8 million tons of finished taconite annually, rivaling the huge Hibbing Taconite in Minnesota.

With two pits plunging as deep as 1,000 feet, the mine would sprawl over four miles and operate for decades.

A February, 2012 report suggests that over a 35 year life span, the mine would ship 25% more ore than the everything taken out of Gogebic Range mines between 1880 and 1966, with waste rock that could form a hill 500 feet high and 1.5 miles long (the size of Rib Mountain), and tailings that, if stacked evenly over 3,750 acres of land leased by G-Tac from Iron County, would be 47 feet deep [7].

A separate geological study by Lawrence University researchers found that the first phase of the mine alone would produce 2.5 billion pounds of sulfur from pyrite (iron sulfide) in the waste rock [8].

The bulk sampling application describes clear-cutting, removing topsoil, and digging or blasting up to 4,000 tons of rock from 4-5 sites across four acres

Project area:8903.0841
Level of Investment:1,500,000,000
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/11/2010
End of the conflict:24/03/2015
Company names or state enterprises:Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTac) from United States of America - Mining company
Relevant government actors:Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Chippewa Federation of Tribes, State of Wisconsin
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Sierra Club, Midwest Advocates, Lawrence University

Conflict and Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches

Impacts of the project

Environmental ImpactsPotential: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Mine tailing spills
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: displacement, Loss of livelihood, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place

Outcome

Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Land demarcation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Project cancelled
Withdrawal of company/investment
Education
Development of alternatives:In 2013, one of the tribes had established an educational camp near the mining site to draw attention to how the mine would violate its treaty rights, as well as to highlight sustainable alternatives to mining.

Even though it is only a temporary success for the tribes, the mining debate helped create new and surprising alliances between tribal groups and local citizens. Opponents of the mine worked to educate county board members and local citizens about the real human cost of the mine [3].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:As a result of dedicated efforts of tribes, citizens, and local community groups, the company was forced to conduct further environmental studies and subsequently cancelled the project.

Even though it is only a temporary success for the tribes, the mining debate helped create new and surprising alliances between tribal groups and local citizens. Opponents of the mine worked to educate county board members and local citizens about the real human cost of the mine [3].

Sources and Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Citizen Petition for Corrective Action or Withdrawal of NPDES Program Delegation from the State of Wisconsin, October 20, 2015
http://midwestadvocates.org/assets/resources/Petition%20for%20Corrective%20Action/2015-10-19_PCA_-_Signatures.pdf

2013 Wisconsin Act 1 (Bad River Watershed Destruction Act)
https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2013/related/acts/1/_4

2013 Wisconsin Act 81 (Managed Forest Law Exemption Act)
https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2013/related/acts/81/_4

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. Iron Mining: An Issue of Environmental Justice 10/19/2011
http://www.wnpj.org/penokeemine

[2] Midwest Environmental Advocates. Mining in the Penokee Hills
http://midwestadvocates.org/issues-actions/actions/mining_in_the_penokees/

[3] Indian Country Today Media Network. A Bad River Win; Gogebic Taconite Putting Wisc. Mine on Hold. Mary Pember 3/3/15
http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/03/03/bad-river-win-gogebic-taconite-putting-wisc-mine-hold-159434

[4] Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. Gogebic dropping plans for massive iron mine. Lee Bergquist 2/27/2015
http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/gogebic-dropping-plans-for-massiive-iron-mine-b99453122z1-294440851.html

[5] Bad River Band Letter to Senator Tiffany. February 1, 2013.
http://midwestadvocates.org/assets/resources/20130201_BRB_Letter_to__Tiffany.pdf

[6] Sierra Club Wisconsin John Muir Chapter. Issues - Blocking Destructive Mining.
http://www.sierraclub.org/wisconsin/issues/mining

[8] Bjornerud, Knudsen, and Trotter 2012. Geochemical, mineralogical, and structural characterization of the Tyler Formation and Ironwood Iron Formation, Gogebic Range, Wisconsin. Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. July 31, 2012.
http://www.wnpj.org/pdf/Bjornerud_Geology_Report_Jan2013.pdf

[9] Kaufman, Dan 2014. The Fight for Wisconsin's Soul. The New York Times. March 29, 2014.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/opinion/sunday/the-fight-for-wisconsins-soul.html?_r=1

[10] Wisconsin Public Radio. GTAC Finds More Wetlands Than It Initially Expected in Penokees. Mike Simonson. September 9, 2014.
http://www.wpr.org/gtac-finds-more-wetlands-it-initially-expected-penokees

[11] Wisconsin DNR. Gogebic Taconite, LLC, potential mining project: Preapplication withdrawal and Managed Forest Law (MFL) land. March 27, 2015
http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/mines/gogebic.html

[7] Blog - Woods Person. The Potential Impact of Waste Rock and Tailings Volumes in the Proposed Gogebic Open Pit Mine. February 23, 2012.
http://woodsperson.blogspot.com/2012/02/potential-impact-of-waste-rock-and.html

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Penokee Mining Report. Nature Conservancy
http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/wisconsin/penokeeminingreport.pdf

Joint Letter from Six Bands of the Anishinaabeg Territory Watersheds and Waters of Lake Superior: Bad River Band of Lake Superior, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior, Lac du Flambeau Band, St. Croix Band, Sokoagon Band, Lac Courte Oreilles Band
http://midwestadvocates.org/assets/resources/Penokee%20Hills/ChippewaFederation_404cNotice_27May2014_(5).pdf

Other documents

Penokee Mountains Heritage Park map
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/PenokeeHeritage_small.pdf

Penokee Range
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/penokee-range.jpg

Wetlands at mine site
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/wetlands-300x200.jpg

Copper Falls State Park Downstream of proposed mine
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/copper-falls-state-park.jpeg

Poster- No Penokee Mine
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/no-penokee-mine-poster.jpg

Watersheds impacted by proposed mines
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/penokee-mine-drainage-map.jpg

Tribal jurisdiction map in relation to proposed mining site
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/Mapping-tribal-jurisdiction.jpg

Citizen protest
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/Protect-Penokee-Hills-300x200.jpg

Meta information

Contributor:Bernadette Grafton and Paul Mohai, [email protected] and [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update10/08/2016

Images

 

Penokee Range

 

Wetlands at mine site

 

Copper Falls State Park

Downstream of proposed mine

Poster- No Penokee Mine

 

Watersheds impacted by proposed mines

 

Tribal jurisdiction map in relation to proposed mining site

 

Citizen protest