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Acid train blockade, 1996

A 28-day blockade of the trains used to transport sulfuric acid though the Bad River reservation near Lake Superior to a copper mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula resulted in the mining project being suspended. It was never resumed. 

July 22 marks the 20th anniversary of the successful train protest on the Bad River Chippewa reservation in northern Wisconsin, a forerunner of the current wave of protests against the dangers of crude oil rail and pipeline traffic and struggles over local control and tribal sovereignty.

For Wisconsinites opposing the proposed expansion of Enbridge Energy’s Line 61, a tar sands crude oil pipeline running from Superior to Delavan, the successful resistance is a powerful reminder that tribal and citizen action matters. Enbridge’s 2010 tar sands oil spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River cost $1.2 billion to clean up. The parallels between the Chippewa’s 1996 objections to the acid train shipments and current concerns about the threat to Wisconsin’s waterways from Enbridge’s pipeline plans are striking.

The 1996 protest began in July, when the Ogichidaa (Protectors of the People) from the Bad River reservation blockaded trains traveling through their reservation carrying sulfuric acid to a nearby copper mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Ogichidaa were concerned that the tracks were unsafe and that a spill from tankers would poison their reservation water and the largest wild rice stand in the Great Lakes region. A dozen communities along the route were also at risk. A separate, but related, issue was the controversial solution-mining project involving the injection of millions of gallons of sulfuric acid into a deep copper mine five miles from Lake Superior to extract the remaining copper.

The Bad River tribal government had earlier asked the Wisconsin Central Railway Ltd. to delay a shipment of sulfuric acid through its reservation because of questions about the safety of a bridge. A spill of about 40,000 gallons of acid, a normal-size shipment through the reservation, could kill every living thing in the Bad River for up to 20 miles downstream from the Bad River trestle. Just a few months earlier, in March 1996, 35 cars of a Wisconsin Central freight train jumped the tracks in Weyauwega in a fiery propane explosion that forced the evacuation of 2,000 citizens for more than two weeks.

Besides the dangers of transporting sulfuric acid, the plans of the Copper Range Company to pump 11 billion gallons of acid into the mine over 20 years, with the possibility of contamination of groundwater and Lake Superior, was of great concern to both the Bad River and Red Cliff Chippewa tribes, who retained hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the ceded territory of the Lake Superior region. Copper Range is the same company whose White Pine mine smelter was shut down in 1994 by environmental lawsuits for gross violations of the Clean Air Act.

The late Walt Bresette, a Red Cliff tribal member and adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice council, had urged EPA in May 1996 to do an Environmental Impact Statement on the controversial project. Washington officials assured Bresette that the EPA would not allow the project to begin without addressing the tribes’ concerns. Within a month of this assurance, the EPA gave the state of Michigan the go-ahead for the project without requiring an EIS. Bresette resigned from the federal advisory council in protest and helped form the Ogichidaa.

After exhausting all legal avenues with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA, on July 22, 1996, Bad River tribal member Butch Stone and three other Ogichidaas placed a drum and an eagle feather on the tracks on the Wisconsin Central Railroad tracks and began spiritual ceremonies. “As a sovereign people," said Stone, “we have an inherent right to defend our land and our way of life.”

Indian and non-Indian supporters from Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota soon joined the Bad River Ogichidaa. The blockade lasted 28 days and prevented the transport of sulfuric acid across the reservation as a federal mediator conducted talks between the Ogichidaa, the tribe and the railway.

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The protest was successful. The action ended in an agreement to temporarily end shipments of sulfuric acid through the reservation until safety issues were resolved. The EPA also agreed to do an environmental analysis of solution mining and the transportation risks of acid to the mine site. The EPA decision prompted Copper Range to suspend the project because it would have caused a costly production delay. The project was never revived.

The blockade and the assertion of tribal sovereignty protected reservation resources and the Lake Superior watershed and won the support of surrounding communities. This is a victory worth remembering for those involved in resistance to Enbridge’s pipeline expansion in Wisconsin.

Al Gedicks of La Crosse is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council.

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