February 12, 2013 by Barbara With and Rebecca Kemble
A microcosm of the global struggle for clean water and land played out in northern Wisconsin last weekend at a listening session held in Ashland concerning SB1/AB1, the new Republican-sponsored mining bill. Impassioned testimony on behalf of the water and Lake Superior was given for ten hours, with only five people speaking in favor of what could be the largest open pit mine in the world. (See this YouTube channel for video testimony of selected individuals, or IndianCountryTV.com YouTube channel for longer, more comprehensive coverage of the entire event.)
The testimony of nearly one hundred people revealed an overwhelming opposition to the bill, as well as a clear rejection of a proposed 21-mile long, 1,000 foot deep mountaintop removal iron ore mine in the headwaters of the Bad River watershed.
Sponsored by Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) and Rep. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland), the session was also attended by Rep. John Lehman (D-Racine), Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Stephen Smith (D-Shell Lake), Rep. Nick Milroy (D-Superior), Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville), Sen. Dale Schultz (R-New Richmond), Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona), Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton).
Other than Schultz, Republican legislators boycotted the session, which many construed as a part of their continuing rejection of democratic process in favor of their corporate sponsors. Of the nearly $1 million in campaign donations to 20 Senate and Assembly mining committee members by interests backing mining deregulation, over $450,000 went to committee member Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and $74,000 to committee chair Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst).
Of the 265 people who registered at Saturday’s listening session, 240 were opposed to the bill, while only 25 registered in support, with 94 speaking against, and only five in favor. The pro-mining speakers spoke in favor of jobs, but when faced with the facts of the damage a mine would do, refused to acknowledge the scientific, historical and economic evidence that a mine will bring no benefit to anyone other than lawyers, the mining company and their cronies, and area medical facilities.
Pro-mining speaker Jerry Larson stated that he was not that concerned about pollution because, “Lake Superior is a sea,” and he claimed that all of the other streams and rivers flowing into the Bad and Kakagoan Rivers will dilute whatever pollution is in the water to render it harmless.
But Joe Dan Rose, Bad River Tribal member, scoffed at that idea. “Dilution is not a solution for pollution,” he said, adding, “It’s outrageous that the authors of the bill chose not to come here.”
Scientists also testified about the danger the mine poses to the water and land, while medical doctors and nurses attested to the damaging human health effects, and several local public officials spoke of the economic dangers to the area. The mayors of all three major communities in the Lake Superior basin—Bayfield, Washburn and Ashland—testified that none of those towns will benefit from a mine. Instead, they stressed the need to continue the area’s already established sustainability movement. Washburn Mayor Scott Griffith and Ashland City Council member Kelly Westlund reached out to those in Hurley and invited them to be a part of finding new solutions to economic needs without mining. Said Westlund, “We need more people growing more food. We can’t do that with bad water.”
“Opportunities at an iron ore mining company like this are great!” said mining advocate and Bayfield County GOP Chair Frank Kostka, claiming that the mine would bring well-paying union jobs to the area. But area resident Chris LaForge debunked this assertion saying, “Cline Mines is a union busting company. Our legislature is proof that the influence of greed works, and that’s a shame. The truth is there’s no way to blow the Penokees to dust without destroying the Bad River watershed. The monkey wrenchers are ready. I’m non-violent but my friends aren’t. Civil unrest is unavoidable if this goes through.”
Ashland County Board member Charles Ortman agreed, using the term “human overburden” to describe the many people in the north who are willing to put their bodies in front of the bulldozers to prevent this mine from being built.
Red Cliff member Sam Morris also warned of thousands of people from around the country coming to the defense of the Penokee Hills should a mine be permitted in the area. “Figure out how many Ojibwes are living around the United States, just tribes, not even counting Canada. I counted at one time – it was 150, just Ojibwe. Would you guys like to see 150 Ojibwe tribes down here?” He added, “You take that back to Walker. You tell him Ogichidaas (Ojibwe warriors) are gonna stand and fight!”
Tom Fitz, a geologist from Northland College, explained the science behind the development of taconite mining and confirmed that there is pyrite mixed in with the ore, revealed by the few cores that are publicly available. “The issue with the pyrite and some of the other minerals is that when they’re brought to the surface, they react with air and water and create sulfuric acid … we need to look at all the mineralogy of the rock to understand the potential impacts of that acid mine drainage.”
Chris McGeshick, Chairman of the Sokoagon Chippewa Community in Mole Lake has seen a mine rejected in his area already. “We’re wasting on time on this destructive bill. You politicians are hooked by money. Let it go. Catch and release!” he said to the applause of the audience. “The tribes as a whole, we own this land. We’re not gonna suck up to the governor who wants to destroy our land. Not gonna happen. You should be coming to us as tribal leaders.” McGeshick said he was open to communication with Scott Walker: “The Governor should contact me. I’m not afraid to talk to him. I work with DNR people and they privately have concerns, but they’re toeing the government party line.”
Elizabeth Bader, former DNR worker at Copper Falls State Park, talked about the thousands of tourists who visit the park every summer. “Once you take the genie out of the bottle you can never put it back,” she said in reference to the elimination of Copper Falls as a viable tourist destination once a mine is installed.
Bill Whalen, Mayor of Ashland, implored the legislators to tell the truth. “I’m against poor legislation. I don’t see why it needs to be changed. I understand how you make numbers say what you want them to say, but you don’t have to lie.”
Kaya Deschane, concerned citizen, expressed what other have said, that once people know the truth about a mine in the Penokees, they are opposed to it. “I told my neighbors I was coming here and they said, tell them there’s eight more on the block against the mine.” Deschane also shared a comment that GTac CEO Bill Williams said to her, “Don’t worry, before we build the mine we have to build a power plant.”
Dr. Stephen Anich brought a carton of drinking water from Reserve Mining that was distributed 40 years ago in Minnesota and gave it to Sen. Bob Jauch. Anich commented that he lives in Minoqua, so he couldn’t give it to his own senator, Tom Tiffany, author of SB1, who refused to attend the session.
Esie Leoso Corbine, Bad River tribal member said, “I can’t fathom why we’re here doing this today… I was once told that someday an ounce of water will be worth an ounce of gold.”
Jeff Ehrhardt, chairman of the Town of Morse Comprehensive Planning Board reminded the committee, “At every hearing overwhelming testimony was opposed to this bill.”
Bobbi Rongstad from Iron County commented on the fact that although Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) was the only Republican who came to Ashland the week before, he refused to attend the session because of Sen. Jauch. “I congratulate Sen. Grothman for coming to Ashland County when his GOP colleagues left. But when I asked Grothman some questions, he sent me an eight page reply authored by GTac.” The week before, Grothman visited a local farm located in the shadow of the proposed mine site, and assured them that caulking fissures in bedrock created by megaton explosives would ameliorate any damage to the water table.
Small business owner Ros Nelson reiterated that area residents are ready to defend themselves if the government won’t. “When GTac showed up with money it appeared that lawmakers could not capitulate fast enough to their desires. Why is such a huge number of lawmakers willing to throw us under the bus? If the people in Madison won’t protect our watershed, we will.”
Gretchen Morris, member of the Red Cliff Band, said, “This is a world issue. We can show people the way. You have the right to challenge the way we live. This is our mother. I challenge you to understand the difference between needs and wants. Would you sell the water out of your womb or that of your mother, daughter, wife or granddaughter?”
Devin Soulier, a member of the Bad River band, expressed his concerns about the continuing annihilation of the Native American culture. “Are you or are you not going to pass a bill that will lead to genocide? Metaphorically speaking, you’re the parents of children who want to shoot up a school for the lunch money.”
Washburn resident Roy Settgas commented on how the stand against the bill and the mine in northern Wisconsin is leading the way to change the consciousness of the rest of the world. “The threat of AB1/SB1 is not to us but to other parts of the state who aren’t as unified or in as such pristine sites. We’re transitioning from resource extractive economy to something more sustainable. Iron vs. water. You can’t make this up. Bad River is leading the change of consciousness coming out of this process. This process has helped us remember who we are and what’s really important to us as a community.”
As they left, Sen. Dale Schultz and Sen. Cullen received a standing ovation. “There is no question, this is what democracy looks like,” said Schultz, whose vote prevented the 2012 mining bill from passing the Senate last March.
Sen. Cullen summed it up: “I learned one thing here today: You can’t mitigate Lake Superior.”
Cullen also said, “I regret the rest of my colleagues in the legislature were not here. I wish they would understand connection to earth and water. If they had a soul, I believe my colleagues would be moved by this testimony.” He offered the members of the pubic who remained some hope: “Eventually the public will does prevail. I saw it happen with the Vietnam war and civil rights.”
Contributing writer: Ros Nelson