The highly unpopular iron mine giveaway bill is not only a major rollback of environmentally protective mining laws, it is also a well-funded mining industry assault on the grass-roots environmental, sport fishing and tribal movement that mobilized tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens to oppose Exxon’s destructive Crandon mine at the headwaters of the Wolf River and enact Wisconsin’s landmark “Prove It First” Mining Moratorium Law in 1998.
Exxon withdrew from the Crandon project following the passage of “Prove It First” in 1998. On Oct. 28, 2003, Mole Lake Ojibwe and Forest County Potawatomi tribal leaders announced that the two neighboring tribes had jointly purchased the 5,000-acre Crandon mine property and declared the area a conservation zone off limits to mining.
The bombshell announcement not only brought the 28-year battle over the mine to an end; it also sent shock waves throughout the international mining industry. How could a grass-roots movement in Wisconsin defeat the largest (Exxon, Rio Algom and BHP Billiton) and most powerful mining corporations in the world? Mining industry publications described this movement as an “example of what is becoming a very real threat to the global mining industry.”
Veterans of the Crandon mine battle were among those who mobilized public opinion against Gogebic Taconite’s proposal for a giant open-pit iron mine in the headwaters of the Bad River watershed adjacent to the sacred wild rice beds of the Bad River Ojibwe on the shore of Lake Superior.
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To counter growing opposition, GTac wrote a 206-page iron mining bill that not only exempts it from important environmental safeguards, such as prove it is safe first, but applies lessons the industry has learned from the Crandon mine defeat to the Penokee Hills strip mine project. The less information available to the public about the full range of impacts from the proposed mine and the less time and opportunity for the public to counter the false claims of the mining company, the better the chances of permitting what will be the largest open-pit iron mine in the world.
How else can one explain the time and financial constraints imposed on the DNR for review of the mining permit and the elimination of the contested case hearing where citizens can challenge data and question mining officials on the record? How else can one explain the lack of consultation with the affected Indian tribes and the disregard for treaty rights in the ceded territory of Wisconsin?
The actions of the Wisconsin Legislature are being closely watched by environmental and indigenous rights groups nationally and internationally. Wisconsin is a testing ground for how the mining industry will respond to organized resistance to projects that threaten the water that all life depends upon for survival.
Passage of the iron mining bill will not stop the massive public uproar against this project. It will simply shift the campaign from the Legislature to other arenas where common sense conservation and Wisconsinites’ fundamental right to know will prevail.
Al Gedicks is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and author of “Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.”