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Chippewas stop acid pollution and mining on their reservation in Michigan, 1996
The United States government established, by treaty, the Bad River Reservation in White Pine, Michigan, in 1854. The treaty allowed members of the Chippewa tribe to retain their rights to hunt and gather food in this area. In 1995, the Copper Range Mining Company decided to use a technique called solution mining to mine copper. Solution mining by the Copper Range Mining Company and Inmet, another mining company, required that large shipments of sulfuric acid be transported to the mines on railroad tracks that intersected with the reservation. Members of the Chippewa Indian tribe, living on the Bad River Reservation, protested the shipment of sulfuric acid used for solution mining. The Chippewas protested because they believed the rail lines to be unsafe, which could result in major accidents on their reservation, and because the seepage of sulfuric acid for solution mining could contaminate their ground water and the lands on which the Chippewas had a right to collect food.
On June 21, 1996, the Federal Railroad Administration stated that the Wisconsin Central Railroad could ship hazardous materials across the Chippewa reservation without Chippewa consent. They also inspected and repaired the railroad tracks, whose quality concerned the Chippewas. On July 2, the mining companies commenced their trial usage of sulfuric acid as a method of solution mining.
On July 22, approximately 12 Chippewa Indians blockaded the railroad tracks that intersected with the Bad River Reservation. The Chippewas demanded a more extensive repair of the tracks, the environmental impact statement for the mine regarding its use of sulfuric acid, and the development of both a reclamation plan and an emergency response plan. On July 24, the blockade continued to obstruct the tracks and as a result, railroad officials had to delay shipments and search for alternative means of shipment. The railroad officials also met with protesters but a solution could not be agreed upon. On July 29, the protesters demanded inspection reports regarding the bridges and tracks, as well as the emergency response plan. On July 30, railroad officials requested that the city sheriff remove protesters, but the railroad officials were refused.
On August 1, government officials became involved with the protest. Government officials summoned US Department of Justice mediator John Terronez to attempt to find a solution. The Governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, requested help from US Attorney General Janet Reno and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit to facilitate the removal of protesters and resumption of shipments. On August 2, US Attorney General Jim Doyle requested a federal inspection of the track conditions and analysis of the impact of solution mining on the environment.
On August 7, federal authorities consented to conduct a full analysis of environmental and transportation safety. US Representative Bark Stupak criticized the blockade in support of the mining project on August 10 and the Ontonagon County Economic Development Corporation also professed their support for the mining project on August 16. On August 14, protesters permitted two trains to cross the blockade as long as the trains did not carry any hazardous materials.
On August 19, the Chippewas ended the blockade and trains not containing sulfuric acid resumed their normal operations on August 26. On September 4, Walter Bressette, a member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the Tribal Chairman, announced plans to demonstrate as part of an effort to shut down the mine.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency announced their involvement on September 18. The EPA scheduled a series of public meetings to explain their position. The EPA held the meetings from September 23-26 and stated it was in support of the mining project. They believed that the research conducted by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality was sufficient, but consented to conduct an Environmental Analysis in 12-18 months. At the first meeting, the Chippewas presented the EPA with a petition against the mine that contained 567 signatures.
On October 2, the EPA announced that rails were up to federal standards for the transportation of hazardous materials. In response, on October 4, Walter Bresette announced he would conduct workshops teaching protesters how to “take apart the rails.”
On October 14, the Copper Range Mining Company announced it would discontinue its mining project due to the extended amount of time it would take the EPA to conduct the Environmental Analysis necessary for the approval for the permit which would allow the full operation of the mine. The delay created too much excess expenditure and the pending Environmental Analysis created a great deal of uncertainty for the future of the mining project. On October 21, the EPA held another public meeting. At the meeting, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials, State Congressmen Ellen Koivisto and Paul Tesanovich, representatives of US Senators Carl Levin and Spencer Abraham, and US Representative Bart Stupak all reiterated their support for the mining project. However, the EPA officially recognized the need for an Environmental Analysis before the project could continue, but gave no time frame for its completion. The uncertainty surrounding the results of the Environmental Analysis forced the mining companies to discontinue their mining projects and subsequently ended the shipment of sulfuric acid across the Bad River Reservation.