Stop Gogebic Taconite’s Wisconsin mining

February 1, 2012

MADISON, Wis.--The sound of drums added to the now familiar singing and chanting in Wisconsin's state Capital rotunda on January 25, a din that periodically grew loud enough to interrupt Gov. Scott Walker's State of the State address.

The drums belonged to members of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Anishinaabe (Ojibewe/Chippewa) tribe. Drumming has been banned in the Capitol, but this did not stop the angry and defiant crowd.

Some 250 activists from across the state stayed to protest the address, after joining tribal members in a rally earlier that evening against AB 426, a bill set to ease the permitting process for new mining operations in Wisconsin's north woods. The bill paves the way for the Gogebic Taconite, a mining company, to build a $1.5 billion iron ore mine at the headwaters of the Bad River in the Penokee Range near Ashland in northern Wisconsin.

The bill, which recently passed the State Assembly, is set to move to the Senate floor soon. Though introduced by Republican state Rep. Mark Honadel, the real author of the bill is Gogebic Taconite itself, with help from the big business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Gogebic Taconite is one of the many mining operations owned by Chris Cline, a billionaire with holdings across the eastern third of the U.S. and in Europe.

AB 426 will reduce review time for proposed mines by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to 360 days. During this time, the DNR can request input and information from mine operators, but if it does not reach a decision within that time period, permission for the mine would be granted automatically.

"I call this 'review process light,'" said Don Ferber of the Four Lakes Group Sierra Club. "Yes, the DNR has a period to ask for information from the mining company, but if the company just decides not to respond within that time, the mining permit is granted automatically. So, there are really no safeguards and no proper review. It's a travesty."

The bill also relaxes environmental standards on the mine and its impact on the area surrounding it. Floodplain regulations would be waived, resulting in the loss of federal flood insurance for homeowners across the state. About 18,000 homes would lose this important federal aid. The bill would also slash the taxes companies normally would pay to local communities affected by the mine.

Gogebic Taconite uses a mining process called "longwall mining," the same method used by Massey Coal in their Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, the site of the country's worst mining disaster in 40 years, an explosion that caused the death of 29 miners.

Longwall mining uses a shearer to cut into the earth and burrow out long swaths of coal. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the method is "the most brutal technology yet employed to extract coal from underground quickly and cheaply." The process releases volatile methane gases into long, tight spaces--a recipe for disaster.

The method also leads to major subsidence (collapse and shifting of the ground) and damage to structures above the extraction. The process dams and eventually dries up water sources, lowering the water table and draining aquifers. Wetlands near the Bad River watershed are particularly vulnerable.

The proposed mine would leave a narrow pit four miles long, 900 feet deep and a quarter-mile wide. Mining waste and debris would be dumped in massive tailings piles throughout the area polluting the water and air.

THE MAN behind the mine, Chris Cline, was dubbed the "New King Coal," by Bloomberg magazine. A relatively quiet player on the energy scene until recently, he's been busy building an empire that includes ownership of coal and iron mines, railroads and even ports in the U.S. Cline has more than 3 billion tons of coal reserves in Illinois and Appalachia alone.

Cline's company, Foresight Reserves, is part of the Carlyle Group, the powerful financial corporation with ties to George Bush Sr., Jim Baker and the defense industry. He has become the poster child for the ridiculous term "clean coal," and calls Massey's CEO Don Blankenship "one of the coal industry's most talented leaders."

This Wisconsin Democracy Campaign noticed several large contributions to Walker's campaign from mining operations starting last year, with a quarter of those coming through Cline's companies.

Many at the rally were very familiar with Cline and his cronies. People who have been fighting mines in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota came to share their experiences and warn Wisconsinites of the dangers.

Babette Grunow, of the Latin America Solidarity Committee in Milwaukee, brought a statement of solidarity from people in the mining community of San Sebastian de Lima in El Salvador. "I brought some people from San Sebastian to Wisconsin to share their stories. We traveled around the state, and to Ashland and the Bad River reservation, where we found many had the same issues and stories about what the mine has done to their communities."

"I came to stand in solidarity with the Native Americans in our state who are up against this desecration of their lands. In Michigan, they've lost the wild rice crop there, a major resource for the tribes, but they've also ruined the environment for everyone. I'm here to stand up for the environment for all the people of Wisconsin," said activist Will Williams of Veterans for Peace. "This is what happens when companies are able to write legislation and the politicians who push it are bought and paid for."

Many who attended the rally were veterans of the February uprising in defense of labor rights and see the onerous mining legislation as one more example of the depth of greed and corruption running throughout our system.

Bryan Pfieffer works with the Wisconsin Bail Out the People Movement in Milwaukee, a group organized to fight home foreclosures. "I've been here off and on since the Capitol occupation last year, and I wanted to come and support a national movement against the plunder of Native American lands, but I'm also here to oppose Scott Walker's address, the state of the state for the 1 percent."

Pfieffer was joined Brian Woods of Occupy Milwaukee, who added, "I came to show complete solidarity with the people here today. After all, we're all facing the same enemy: capitalism."

When asked why many union members attended the rally, Angela Walker, the legislative director of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 in Milwaukee, said, "Why am I here? Labor's base is the community and what hurts the community, our community, hurts labor. We can never forget that."

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