Wisconsin Tribes Resist Exxon and Rio Algom
In their efforts to mine the most ore for the most profit at the least
cost, multinational mining corporations violate human rights and destroy
people's lives, health, property, and the environment. Native American,
Indigenous, tribal, "minority" and "third world" communities often suffer
the most damage from mining. The Mole Lake, Menominee, Potowatomi,
Stockbridge-Munsee, and Oneida tribes in north Wisconsin, USA are only a
few of the peoples negatively impacted by mining corporations.
The following article details the struggles of Wisconsin tribes against
Exxon and Rio Algom.
Tailing Exxon and Rio Algom
by Al Gedicks and Zoltan Grossman
In 1986, after a decade of strong local opposition, Exxon Minerals
withdrew its application to construct a large underground mine next to
the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa reservation in northeastern Wisconsin.
Nine years later, Exxon and Canada-based Rio Algom have formed the
Crandon Mining Company (CMC). CMC filed a 10,000-page permit application
to extract 55 million tons of zinc-copper sulfide ore at the site over
years, enough to yield more than $4 billion worth of zinc and copper. But
the latest efforts of the mining companies to sell local communities on
the project have been hindered by activists, who have publicized the
unflattering track records that these corporations have acquired
elsewhere in the Americas.
In 1975, Texas-based Exxon Minerals discovered one of the 10
largest zinc-copper sulfide deposits in North America adjacent to the
Mole Lake Reservation, near Crandon, Wisconsin. Situated at the
headwaters of the Wolf River in Forest County, the proposed mine is the
largest of a series of metallic sulfide deposits planned for development
in the northern part of the state. The projectUs impact would extend far
beyond its 550-acre site. When exposed to air or water, metallic sulfides
produce sulfuric acids. The ore also contains such poisonous heavy metals
as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium. Over its lifetime, the mine would
generate an estimated 44 million tons of wastes. If dumped at one site,
this waste would form the largest toxic waste dump in Wisconsin.
Janet Smith, a field officer from the Green Bay office of the
Fish and Wildlife Service, has criticized CMC for failing to acknowledge
that its operations would contaminate the groundwater in the area for as
long as 9,000 years. Dr. David Blowes, a mine waste expert with the
Waterloo Centre for Groundwater Research in Ontario, Canada, says Rall
the tailings [waste] produced will have an extremely high-acid generating
potential.S The mine's half-mile-deep shafts would drain groundwater
supplies much as a syringe draws blood from a patient, drawing down water
levels over an area of four square miles.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing at Mole
Lake in early 1995 to hear comments on the Exxon/Rio Algom proposal.
Tribal members unanimously opposed the proposal, saying it would threaten
the wild rice they harvest from the reservationUs Rice Lake. Charles
Ackley, the son of the late Chief Willard Ackley, makes a living
harvesting wild rice on the lake, which he says the mine would ruin.
REast of us here, where this mine is supposed to take place, is all
spring fed, he says. If they start fooling around underground, there
are going to be a lot of lakes going dry east of us here. And suppose
Exxon taps into our underground water spring? What is going to happen to
our water situation in our community?
Joining the Sokaogon Chippewa are the nearby Menominee, Potawatomi,
Stockbridge-Munsee and Oneida nations, which are also concerned that they
would be harmed by the mining operations. All five tribes are working
with environmental and sport-fishing groups through a broad-based
campaign called WATER, the Watershed Alliance toward Environmental
Responsibility. Some participants in this campaign are not traditional
allies. Conflict over treaty spearfishing rights in Wisconsin between
1984 and 1992 pitted sport-fishing groups against the Chippewa. But the
mining threat has brought Native Americans and sport-fishing groups
together to protect common resources. If the mine were to go in, it
would wipe out the Wolf River trout stream and create a pile of tailings
that in 50 years would be a Superfund [hazardous waste] site,S says Herb
Buettner, owner of the Wild Wolf Inn and president of the Wolf River
chapter of Trout Unlimited.
But Crandon Mining Company President Jerry Goodrich disagrees.
If we cannot protect the Wolf, there will be no Crandon mine, he says.
Indeed, many people in Wisconsin agree that the river takes
precedence over corporate mining ambitions. The Wolf River is at the
center of the northeastern Wisconsin tourist economy and the meeting
ground between Indians, environmentalists and anglers. It is the state's
largest whitewater trout stream, supporting brown, brook and rainbow
trout fisheries. More than 50,000 tourists visit the area each year to
enjoy trout fishing, whitewater rafting and canoeing.
The lower half of the Wolf is a National Wild and Scenic River.
Over ExxonUs opposition, the state of Wisconsin granted ROutstanding
Resource WaterS (ORW) status to the Wolf River in 1988. This designation
means that any water discharged into the Wolf must be at least as clean
as the river water. ExxonUs manager of mineral regulatory affairs, James
D. Patton, objected to the classification because he said it Rcould
create a significant potential roadblock to any future resumption of the
Crandon project.S Later, the company said it could comply with ORW standards.
This was not the first time that the corporate partners behind
CMC have encountered determined opposition from a diverse coalition. The
first CMC public relations manager, J. Wiley Bragg, was a veteran of the
Exxon Valdez public relations operation in Alaska. Earlier, his
successor, R. E. Diotte, had promoted the image of Rio Algom in a uranium
mining controversy that plagued that company in Ontario. In each of these
public relations campaigns, the leading corporate adversaries were Native
peoples, environmentalists and fishing groups.
Among those who lobbied for the ORW classification was the
Menominee Nation. The Wolf flows through the Menominee reservation, 35
miles downstream from the proposed mine. RThe Wolf River is the lifeline
of the Menominee people and central to our existence. We will let no harm
come to the river,S says Menominee Chair John Teller. The state
government has consistently opposed treaty-rights suits by both the
Chippewa and Menominee. While the treaties do not reserve mineral rights,
they do guarantee Native access to off-reservation natural resources,
such as fish and wild rice, which could be endangered by sulfide mining.
Exxon's record with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska has
not reassured people in Wisconsin about the company's ability to manage
large mining venture in an ecologically sensitive watershed. Prior to the
first public hearing on Exxon's mine permit application, WATER ran
newspaper ads in the Crandon area, asking, Will the Wolf River Be
Exxon's Valdez? What if it happened here? More than 300 people came to
the hearing, with almost everyone who testified expressing concern for
the Wolf River watershed.
Bringing international attention to their battle, the Sokaogon
Chippewa invited the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) to hold its
fifth annual Protecting Mother Earth Conference on the Mole Lake
Reservation in June 1994 in conjunction with a regional gathering
coordinated by the Midwest Treaty Network. IEN conferences bring together
community-based indigenous activists from throughout the Americas and the
Pacific Islands to work together to protect indigenous lands from
contamination and exploitation. IEN's previous efforts helped grassroots
activists defeat a 5,000-acre landfill on the Rosebud Lakota Reservation
in South Dakota and a proposed incinerator and an asbestos landfill on
(Navajo) land in Arizona.
The Mole Lake gathering established a Wisconsin Review Commission to
review the track records of Exxon and Rio Algom around the world. The
commission included groups representing farmers, churches, workers, civil
rights activists, women, small businesses, tribal governments and
recreational groups. A similar commission was assembled in the 1970s by
the Black Hills Alliance to investigate the track records of uranium
mining companies that wanted to mine in the sacred Black Hills of the
The panel, chaired by Wisconsin Secretary of State Douglas
LaFollette, heard testimony from Native people who came from Alaska,
Colombia, Ontario and New Mexico. Testimony focused on people who have
been directly affected by ExxonUs mining and oil drilling activities and
its chemical and oil leaks. Exxon was invited to comment on the draft
report, but chose not to do so.
Nearly all of the testimony before the commission was delivered
by Native peoples from North and South America, which reflects the fact
that a disproportionate amount of resource extraction occurs on Native
lands. I never believed once that anyone could ever kill the ocean,
testified Native Eyak fisher Dune Lankard, So when [the Exxon Valdez
spill] happened I was in shock. How do you compensate somebody for taking
everything away from you? Commercial fishers lost millions of dollars
from canceled salmon and herring runs; 1994 net permits sold at one-sixth
of the cost of pre-spill permits because of catch reductions. Exxon was
fined $5 billion in punitive damages for economic losses from the spill
in 1995. The company is appealing the fine.
Serpent River Ojibwa band councilor Keith Lewis testified on Rio
Algom's Elliot Lake uranium mines in Ontario, Canada. He said the Serpent
River used to be one of the greatest sturgeon rivers in the province,
before it was almost wiped out by radioactive and heavy metal poisons
from the mines. The only reason that walleye are still present is that
the Serpent is freshly stocked each year, he said.
In 1976, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment reported that 18
lakes in the Serpent River system had been contaminated by uranium mining
by Rio Algom and another Ontario-based company, Denison Mines. Despite
several years of clean-up efforts, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
biologist Will Samis says that the river has yet to fully recover.
Roger Payne, environmental and decommissioning manager of Rio
Algom's Elliott Lake Division acknowledges that the lack of adequate
understanding on the part of the company in the 1950s had a detrimental
effect on the watershed. But Payne says that Ronce that was noted, the
necessary remedial measures were taken and there has been no long-term,
lasting environmental degradation to the watershed. Elliot Lake and the
surrounding area is one of the most beautiful in the world, he says.
RWeUre a super retirement community, with the closure of the mine.S
Lewis testified that he is one of many former Elliot Lake miners
who now have serious health problems such as asthma, bronchitis or
cancer. The Ontario Health Ministry acknowledges that the miners lung
cancer rates are between 300 percent and 500 percent above that of the
population at large. London-based Survival International, an
international Native-rights organization, named Rio Tinto Zinc, which had
been Rio Algom's parent company, as one of the 10 worst companies in 1992
in terms of damage done to tribal lands in the Americas.
Some of the most damning testimony came from Armando Valbuena
Gouriy, a Wayuu Indian from the Guajira peninsula on the northern tip of
Colombia, where Exxon and the Colombian government operate the El
Cerrejon. The former vice-president of operations at El Cerrejon, Goodrich,
CMC and its public relations firm declined to respond to repeated calls
from Multinational Monitor.
The commission released its report March 24, 1995, the sixth
anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill. Members of the commission urged
the Wisconsin legislature to approve bad actor legislation, which would
require the state to consider a company's past performance before
permitting it do business in Wisconsin. Intense mining industry lobbying
has prevented passage of the bill for the last several years; the bill
now is stalled in a hostile legislative committee. Past violations, La
Follette said, are taken into account for everything from drivers
licenses to gaming licenses, but not permits for potentially harmful
To counteract negative publicity about Exxon's track record, CMC
officials have been meeting with newspaper editorial boards all over the
state. Among their complaints is that they have not been able to meet
with the Sokaogon Chippewa to discuss the mine. But the Sokaogon say
there is nothing to discuss. Talking with them is participating in our
own destruction, says tribal judge Fred Ackley. Our goal is to stop
In April 1995, the national conservation group American Rivers added the
Wolf River to its list of the nation's 20 most threatened rivers due to
the pollution threat posed by the proposed CMC mine. This threat had been
documented by the Menominee along with the River Alliance of Wisconsin
and the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin. The day after American
Rivers designated the Wolf as a threatened river, Exxon announced that
was abandoning its plans to dump treated wastewater into the Wolf River.
Instead, the company said that it would build a 40-mile pipeline and
divert the wastewater into the Wisconsin River near Rhinelander. Because
the Wisconsin River is not as clean as the Wolf, the company would not
have to spend as much treating the discharge.
Mine opponents said the new plan threatens pollution of both the
Wolf and Wisconsin rivers. David Blouin, a spokesperson for the Mining
Impact Coalition, said the threat to the Wolf would remain because
tailings would still be stored at the headwaters of the Wolf. In
addition, the plan could actually increase groundwater depletion in the
area of the mine because of the amount of water necessary to pump the
wastes to Rhinelander. Exxon's revised discharge plan marks a retreat
from its previously stated position that it could meet the stringent
requirements for discharge into an Outstanding Resource Water.
The mine permit process is just moving into high gear. In June,
CMC filed the first 10,000 pages of its environmental impact report with
the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, with another 10,000 pages
following in August.
Wisconsin officials are bitterly divided over CMC's mining
application. Laura Sutherland is an attorney handling the CMC proposal
for the Wisconsin Public IntervenorUs office, the state's public
environmental watchdog on water issues. Sutherland has retained three
scientists to evaluate CMCUs submissions on the projectUs waste storage
and groundwater impact. But Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and his
chief aide, James Klauser, a former Exxon lobbyist, have eliminated
funding for Sutherland's office in the state budget that was recently
approved by the Republican-dominated legislature. The elimination of the
Public Intervenor's office means that the public will be without an
effective voice in the decision-making process,S says Bob Schmitz,
president of the Wolf River Watershed Alliance.
Even if the state approves CMC's mining proposal, indigenous
groups have pledged to continue their struggle. Bill Koenen, a Sokaogon
tribal member and a national council member of the IEN testified at the
Army Corps of Engineers hearing that, Our children will be right behind
us to help us defend our sacred land and wild rice beds. In March 1994,
more than 400 people from around the state rallied at the State Capitol
Madison to protest the proposed mine.
A bigger rally at CMC corporate headquarters in Rhinelander is being
planned for May 1996. Opponents hope to build sufficient opposition to
convince corporate investors that the economic benefits of the proposed
mine are not worth its political costs.
Appeared in November 1995 Multinational Monitor
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