ODAHAN, Wis. — While laughing children bob in kayaks along the sandy shores of Lake Superior, their somber parents hunch over picnic tables talking about their wild rice, their water, their fish and their way of life. Members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians worry about what is to become of their lake, a life source for their people.
Gov. Scott Walker, his fellow Republicans and the governor’s onetime enemies, labor unions, are championing a $1.5 billion open pit mine planned for the Bad River watershed, six miles from the reservation in the pristine Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin.
On Aug. 30, six Chippewa tribes of Lake Superior sent President Obama a letter requesting the Department of the Interior prepare litigation to protect the wetlands, fisheries, waters and wildlife from mining. The mining area is honeycombed with 70 miles of rivers and streams that flow north into Lake Superior, which the tribes say would be threatened.
This March, Walker signed a bill streamlining the approval process and easing environmental regulations for the proposed open pit iron ore mine, in which wide swaths of earth are removed to extract minerals. The issue playing out in Wisconsin is being repeated elsewhere.
“Policymakers and scholars” in other states — including Washington, California, Colorado, Montana, Utah, Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and New York — “are looking to see how low environmental standards will go for open pit mining,” said Jenny Kehl, director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Water Policy at the School of Freshwater Sciences.
“The precedent will spread to other states and to the mining of other minerals, which will further jeopardize water resources across the country,” she said.
Kehl said the proposed mine will be so substantial that despite there being other mines near Lake Superior, this one, she said, would cause “environmental devastation.”
In a statement to USA TODAY, the governor’s office said, “Gov. Walker believes we can continue to protect our clean air, clean land and clean water, while providing Wisconsin workers with great opportunities for family-supporting jobs.”
The four-mile long mine would produce eight million tons a year of taconite, a low grade iron ore. The mine would be built by Gogebic Taconite (GTac), creating 700 jobs and indirectly, several thousand more.
Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, thinks the move is overdue: “Many states are evaluating their systems for regulatory certainty because we’re lagging behind other countries,” he said.
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