Backyard Talk

Mining Wars in Wisconsin

I am a Wisconsin native who is rather new to CHEJ, having joined as a member less than a year ago. My first exposure to the Center came in February 2011, when I attended a workshop facilitated by CHEJ staff in Marquette, MI to help citizens who were fighting an ill-advised mining proposal in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I just happened to be in town on the day of the workshop, and a friend suggested I stop by. Wow … am I glad that I did!

Not only did I learn a lot that day about community organizing, but CHEJ staff has been willing to help me, one-on-one, as I have struggled in my own small way to work on mining issues affecting my home state of Wisconsin. The most recent example involved a mining proposal advanced by a Florida-based company (the Cline Group, operating in Wisconsin as Gogebic Taconite, or G-Tac) that wanted to construct a 4-mile long open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin, close to the shores of Lake Superior and the reservation of the Bad River Ojibwe Nation.

Superior is the greatest of the Great Lakes and the largest reservoir of clean, fresh water on earth. Even though I am not Catholic, for me the G-Tac proposal gave new meaning to the phrase: “Don’t mess with Mother Superior.” And even though I am not Native, that’s where my heart is and I say: “Don’t mess with the waters flowing through the Bad River Reservation that form the life-blood of its Peoples.”

Early on G-Tac complained that Wisconsin’s mining laws were too cumbersome to allow for the development of a profitable mine. That’s when things turned political and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers moved to fast-track a new mining bill through the Wisconsin Legislature to facilitate construction of the mine. Word had it that the bill (2011 Assembly Bill 426) was actually authored by G-Tac itself.

In the name of job creation, the bill: (1) gutted environmental protections; (2) ignored Native American treaty rights; (3) silenced the voice of the public by failing to provide for citizen suits over illegal environmental damage caused by a mine; (4) denied citizens the right to a contested case hearing on any decision made by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources under the new law; (5) ripped off Wisconsin taxpayers by allowing the mining industry to dig up and ship out the state’s iron ore while paying a pittance in taxes; and (5) the list goes on and on.

Click here to read the actual wording of the bill (so you can read for yourself), as well as a summary of its major flaws as set forth by Wisconsin State Representative Terese Berceau (D-Madison).

As one of my friends commented, the whole thing felt like  Gov. Walker and his cronies were holding the people, the air, the water, and the lands of Wisconsin hostage, telling us “Drink this poison and then you can have a job.”

Some say that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has “gone to the dogs” but even they don’t want him (March 10, 2012).

Governor Walker was already in trouble with Wisconsin families because of how he stripped public workers of their collective bargaining rights in 2011. In fact, over a million signatures were collected last year to force him to a recall election that will be held in June. The assault on Wisconsin’s mining laws was just the latest example of Walker’s propensity to walk over and try to crush little guys like me. It is no wonder a broad coalition of Wisconsin citizens and tribal members stepped forward to say, “Enough! No more!”

That’s when I contacted CHEJ to let them know what was happening in Wisconsin with the new mining legislation. I told them what I wanted to do as “my part” to help defeat the bill and asked if they might have some advice for me, based on their experience in fighting other battles.  

First off, I mentioned that I wanted to offer testimony against the new mining bill at an upcoming public hearing, but the committee chair was limiting each citizen to 3 minutes. What to do? The next thing I knew, CHEJ’s Peter Sessa was helping me hone my original comments (that were way too long) so that I could deliver the biggest blow with the smallest number of words. It worked!

And several weeks later, when demonstrations against the bill were scheduled to take place at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, I got an email from CHEJ’s Makia Burns, offering to provide advice on how I, as an individual, could best fit into the bigger picture evolving in Madison. I certainly didn’t expect to get that kind of personal attention from a national organization like CHEJ.

I must say that my experience in Madison was rather traumatic. Perhaps I am naïve, but I had never witnessed, first hand, such corruption in government. There were cops all over the place, as if we, the citizens, were the criminals. I even got kicked out of the gallery in the Assembly Chambers during the debate on the mining bill, even though I was just sitting there quietly. You see, several people “broke the rules” by holding up signs in the gallery and, all of a sudden, a decree was handed down that ALL of us had to leave. Wow! That’s when people got angry. Many assembled outside the Chambers’ doors and started chanting and stomping their feet in an effort to make sure the lawmakers could hear their discontent.  Still, the Assembly proceeded to pass the mining bill on a 59-36 party line vote.

But I do have some good news to report! The company that authored the terrible mining legislation that was the subject of so much controversy has decided to pick up its blocks and go home. Even though the bill passed the Assembly, it failed to pass the Wisconsin Senate in early March by one vote (that of a Republican who crossed party lines). Within hours of the senate vote, the company announced it was pulling out of Wisconsin. G-Tac President Bill Williams issued the following terse statement, much to our delight:

“Senate rejection of the mining reforms in Assembly Bill 426 sends a clear message that Wisconsin will not welcome iron mining. We get the message. G-Tac is ending plans to invest in a Wisconsin mine. We thank the many people who have supported our efforts. For Further Information Call: Bob Seitz, Arrowhead Strategies, LLC at 608-310-5323”

So is G-Tac gone for good, or is this just a company ploy to “up the ante” and force the Wisconsin Legislature to cave in to the company’s demands? No one knows for sure, but we are savoring the victory for the moment!

I am just one person, and there is no way I can take credit for the defeat of the mining bill or the exodus of G-Tac from Wisconsin. But CHEJ didn’t look at me as “just one person” and instead helped me to make the most of what I had to offer to the collective movement. I am convinced that, by helping one person at a time, CHEJ is truly helping to turn the tide.

Pictured here, left to right, are Sherrole Benton (Green Bay, WI), Bill Krupinski (Jefferson, WI) and Laura Gauger (Duluth, MN) who joined forces with tribal members and citizens throughout Wisconsin to demonstrate against fast-track mining legislation that would have gutted environmental protections and ignored Native American treaty rights. Recognition of tribes as sovereign nations was written into our (USA) constitution in 1787, so that is why the logo on the sign refers to that date (January 25, 2012).