The GTac Mine Is Dead—It Just Doesn't Know it Yet

Al Gedicks & Dave Blouin

October 28 was the 10th anniversary of the historic victory over the controversial Crandon mine project adjacent to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa Reservation. Veterans of the 28-year (1975-2003) battle against the Crandon metallic sulfide mine gathered on the Mole Lake Reservation on October 26 to commemorate the grassroots environmental, sportfishing and tribal victory over the world’s largest energy company (Exxon) and the world’s largest mining company (BHP Billiton).

Situated at the headwaters of the Wolf River, the proposed underground shaft mine was one mile upstream from the tribe’s wild rice beds, five miles from the Forest County Potawatomi Reservation, and 40 miles (via the Wolf River) upstream of the Menominee Nation. The mine would have destroyed Mole Lake’s wild rice beds and threatened the tourism industry downstream on the Wolf River.

In the end, the Mole Lake Chippewa and the Forest County Potawatomi tribes purchased and divided the 5,000-acre Crandon mine property for $16.5 million. Mole Lake acquired the Nicolet Minerals Company, and quickly dropped mine permit applications. Tribal gaming revenue helped purchase the site but it was the Native/non-Native alliance that had driven down the price by millions of dollars, by making it clear that the Crandon mine project had little likelihood of ever being developed. The land is now managed as a conservation area devoted to sustainable land-management practices, tribal cultural values and tourism suitable to this environmentally sensitive area.

The international mining industry was shocked when a broad multiracial, rural-based grassroots alliance defeated the world’s largest mining corporation. How could such a movement overcome the superior financial resources, and political access to decision-makers in the Wisconsin legislature, governor’s office and the Department of Natural Resources?

Dale Alberts, president of Nicolet Minerals Company, a subsidiary of BHP Billliton, admitted that “a major problem in the beginning was the company did a poor job communicating to the local people. Environmental groups got out ahead and frightened people.”  What really frightened people was the prospect of acidic mine waste piles 90 feet deep and covering 355 acres at the headwaters of the pristine Wolf River. Native and non-Native groups mistrusted the Department of Natural Resources to defend their rights, and found that tribal environmental regulations were stronger than state laws in protecting the Wolf River’s tourism economy.

After the Crandon defeat the mining industry urgently discussed the need for a “social license to operate” where the mining companies work to win broad social support for their extractive activities.  The failure to obtain such a social license raises the political and financial risks of a project and can often lead to the defeat of a mining project by widespread community opposition. This is exactly what happened at Crandon and what is now taking place in the Bad River watershed where Gogebic Taconite (GTac) has proposed a mountaintop removal operation to create the largest open pit iron mine in the world upstream from the largest remaining wild rice wetland in the entire Great Lakes basin on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation.

GTac has followed Exxon’s strategy by using their financial and political power with the governor and the legislature to write its own mining law, severely limiting citizen and tribal participation in the permitting process, and militarizing the mine site by deploying masked security guards with automatic weapons to intimidate the public. GTac recently threatened the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe with legal action to prevent an independent scientist from identifying wetlands in the mine site. These are just some of the actions, which have turned local opinion against the mine. The most recent public opinion survey from the University of Wisconsin-Superior shows that nearly two-thirds of the people in a random poll in Iron and Ashland counties oppose the mine project.

From the perspective of the mining industry’s own standards for a viable mine project, this project is dead in the water.

Al Gedicks of La Crosse is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council. Dave Blouin of Madison is the Mining Committee chair of the Sierra Club—John Muir Chapter.