A northern Wisconsin American Indian tribe ramped up its push Wednesday to stop a proposed iron mine, meeting with Gov. Scott Walker to voice their fears the mine would destroy their way of life.
The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's tribal council held a 90-minute news conference before meeting with the governor and his aides behind closed doors at the state Capitol, telling reporters the mine presents an imminent threat to their air and water quality.
"This is our land. This is where we live. We just can't pack up and move," council member Frank Connors said. "Our land is our culture, our history, which runs deep. We came here to protect it."
Gogebic Taconite wants to mine a stretch of the Penokee Range in Iron and Ashland counties just south of the Bad River's reservation. The first phase calls for mining a 4½ mile stretch of the range, which would entail blasting down to the ore and creating a massive open pit.
Company officials claim the project will generate hundreds of jobs and revitalize the region. They want to conduct additional studies of the area, but first they want state lawmakers to craft legislation reforming the state's permitting system, a process that currently can take years. No formal bill has emerged yet, though.
The Bad River tribe and other environmentalists fear the mine could pollute the Bad River watershed, which drains to Lake Superior, and hurt air quality. The tribal council adopted a resolution in May opposing the mine, but took things a step farther Wednesday, journeying all the way to Madison with its lawyers to air their grievances with the media and Walker.
The tribal council reiterated its opposition to the mine to reporters, calling the company's job creation claims propaganda, warning the mine could ruin the wetland sloughs where the tribe holds its traditional rice harvests and complaining the tribe has been left out of all discussions about the mine.
In addition to voicing their concerns about the Gogebic Taconite project, the council planned to present the governor with 10 principles it wants to see in any mining legislation, including excluding any mine that could potentially cause acid pollution, including tribes in the permit process and preserving contested hearings on permits. Contested hearings are a sort of mini-trial, complete with sworn testimony and cross-examination.
"We want to bring the debate down to the details, not the mantra of jobs," the council's attorney, Glenn Stoddard, said.
Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams said the tribe's concerns are nothing new, but their presence in Madison suggests lawmakers could have a bill ready soon. He stressed the company doesn't want to weaken air or water quality standards.
"We can work in harmony together," Williams said. "If we come into this with open minds, there is no need to continue generations of these fears. There are standards we have to live up to. These standards will be part of the permitting process. If we can't meet these, then we won't have a mine."
Walker has said he supports a mine as long as it doesn't hurt other sectors in the state such as farming and tourism.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said in a statement that the governor met with tribal leaders as promised and listened to their concerns. He declined to elaborate, saying only that discussions likely would continue at Walker's regular quarterly meeting with the state's tribes next month.
Wiggins said representatives from the state's other 10 tribes joined the Bad River at the meeting in a show of support. He said the governor listened to the tribes, but didn't commit to anything.
Mic Ishan, secretary/treasurer for the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said Walker was upset the Bad River chose to hold a news conference before meeting with him. Wiggins said the governor was "very aware" of the news conference and wanted to meet first before the tribe went to the media, but didn't take it personally.
Werwie declined comment on the tribes' characterizations of the meeting.