Resist the Mine/Envision the Future: The Penokee Hills Education Summit – Part OnePosted: September 26, 2013
Notes from the Summit: Background
The Penokee Hills in Iron County provided a breathtaking backdrop last weekend for a convergence of approximately 300 dedicated individuals who are resisting what could end up being the largest open pit iron mine in the world (4 1/2 miles long, 1.5 miles wide and up 1,000 feet deep). The mine is slated to run through the pristine landscape across Iron and Ashland Counties in Northern Wisconsin. An Ojibwe Harvest Camp has been operating and educating in opposition to the venture for months while the mining company’s armed mercenaries patrolled the forest. What follows here is some background to the Penokee Hills Education Summit held at Whitecap Resort in Upson. In my next post I’ll outline what took place at the summit itself.
Long-time Bayfield Peninsula resident and Center for Justice and Peacebuilding student Danielle Taylor created Voices of the Penokee Hills; Becoming the Poets of Our Own Landscape, a blog which examines the Northern Wisconsin mining issue from residents’ sense and understanding of place. Here’s some text from her introduction:
The Penokee Hills and the Bad River Watershed are located in Ashland and Iron Counties in very Northern Wisconsin. An iron ore mine is being considered for an area spanning some twenty miles along an ancient mountain ridge. Geologically speaking the Penokee Hills are some of the oldest hills in the world. Once mountains, the Penokee Hills were scraped and carved away many millennia ago by streams, rivers, oceans and glacial periods. Left behind were iron ore deposits. The deposits nearest to the surface and easiest to remove were mined beginning in the late 19th century and up to the middle 20th century. What remains is a low grade iron ore that lies between 600 and 900 feet below the surface. The first phase of a new mine would be four miles long and one and a half miles wide. The method of the planned extraction would consist of digging a trench, pulling out the iron ore and replacing the unused ‘tailings’ in the trench creating a series of lakes in its wake.
Taylor interviews acclaimed author and activist for indigenous and environmental issues Al Gedicks about the mine’s threat to the eco-system and public health. Gedicks describes what he calls the technological arrogance of the mining industry – where corporations have capital and machinery to extract minerals but do not have the ability to mitigate long term damage to communities.
Earlier this year the Wisconsin legislature fast-tracked and passed a deregulation bill called AB1 – SB1 which gutted long-established checks on mining practices. Journalist and activist Rebecca Kemble follows the Penokee Hills mining issue closely and described the bill’s amendments in her February 2013 story for The Progressive:
These include allowing a mining operation to drill as many high-capacity wells as they need without regard to the impacts the wells have on drawing down water levels of nearby municipal water supplies or groundwater tables from which rural households get their drinking water. It also allows for the filling of a lake or pond that is less than 2-acres in size with mining waste and tailings piles, and eliminates the administrative law proceeding known as a contested case hearing from the permitting process itself.
In a 2011 article University of Wisconsin’s online newspaper The Pointer asked key questions reflected by this weekend’s summit participants:
What is difficult to understand is why so much environmental degradation is necessary for so little iron. (Frank) Koehn (retired teacher and local politician) explained that the mineral sought after by mining companies is not raw iron ore, but rather taconite. Taconite in an iron formation and occurs as streaks in the Penokee Hills. Iron is found in this taconite as magnetite, an iron oxide that is only between 25 and 30 percent iron. Koehn said that this iron is low quality and will most likely be shipped overseas to countries like India and China.
The Pointer article says out-of-state companies RGGS Land and Minerals, Ltd. of Houston, TX, and LaPointe Mining Co. of Minnesota own much of the land that will be utilized for mining purposes. The Cline Group of Florida also has a claim on the property’s mineral rights, and in order to move forward with iron mining has organized the subsidiary Gogebic Taconite (G-TAC). Click here to find the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources outline of G-TAC’s permit process.
Over the past two years local communities including 11 First Nations tribes and bands have seen increased opposition to the mine. The video below features members of the Ojibwe Bad River Band responding to the mine. Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins says,
The thousand foot hole in the ground would drop the water table, contaminate ground water, would essentially through the crushing and storage and disposal of waste rock in wet, weedy areas, waterways, streams, creeks and rivers. We would essentially see acid mine drainage issues, we’d see the leeching of heavy metals and toxins into our waterways.
Lake Superior is the terminus for many of those waterways that Wiggins describes. The lake makes up 10 percent of the world’s fresh water and is the cleanest and clearest of the Great Lakes.
Last spring 2013 the Lac Coutre Oreilles Band of Ojibwe embodied a bold and creative stand against the mine by setting up a five-acre Harvest Camp right on top of the proposed Iron County mining site and next to G-TAC’s operations. Here is a recent video about the project:
Gasper and his crew set up wigwams, created trails, a community kitchen and gardens. One of the more stunning features of the camp are these squash plants grown for 600-year-old seed unearthed in a clay pot from a recent archeological dig in the region.
More than 3000 people have made the sojourn to the camp since it opened. LOC has no plans to shut down the camp despite rumblings from Iron County supervisors about proper “camping” permits.
With opposition escalating G-TAC brought in private security guards armed with automatic rifles to protect the company’s drilling in the Penokee Range. The mercenaries were photographed patrolling the woods in camouflage gear.
In my next blog post, I’ll compile some of the next steps explored at the Penokee HIlls Education Summit.
-Paulette Moore is a filmmaker, educator, and non-violent gadfly. Twitter: @storydoula