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Honoring the River
Everyone knows that mining can be a dirty business, but it turns out that mines are particularly bad news for tribal communities.
For more than a century, American Indians and Alaska Natives have suffered the impacts of mining while enjoying few of its benefits. Outdated federal land-use policies encourage mining near reservations where tribal members depend on fish and game for subsistence and cultural activities, and laws meant to protect tribal interests and sovereignty have often been inadequate or ignored. The tribes face more threats as a new wave of exploration and mining projects sweeps through the country.
New NWF Report Tells Story of Mining and Tribes
The National Wildlife Federation has just released a new report, Honoring the River: How Hardrock Mining Impacts Tribal Communities, which tells the story of mining and tribes, from the checkered history of federal legislation allowing mining companies to lease minerals on tribal lands—often without tribal consent—to the many new mines being proposed near tribal communities and lands.
The report also describes the legacy of water pollution left by the mining industry and urges the Obama Administration to close the two mining loopholes in the Clean Water Act’s regulations. These loopholes actually allow mines to treat rivers, lakes, and wetlands as waste dumps for toxic, acid-producing tailings. Water pollution caused by improperly stored mining waste has had a particularly devastating effect on tribal communities.
One of the key points of the report is that tribes view water as sacred, something to be honored. Our government could certainly learn from this perspective. Despite its commitment to clean water and environmental justice, the Administration has been slow to make the relatively simple rule changes needed to close the loopholes in the Clean Water Act. It hasn’t honored the river.
Tribes Speak Out Against Mining
Even as tribes continue to suffer from poisoned rivers, contaminated sacred sites, and other devastation caused by old and abandoned mines, they face a new round of threats. Mines are being proposed from Alaska’s Bristol Bay, a watershed that supports the greatest remaining runs of wild sockeye salmon on earth, to the Great Lakes basin, which contains 84 percent of North America’s supply of fresh surface water.
Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Mike Wiggins is fighting to stop the permitting of the largest iron-ore, open-pit mine in the world slated for the headwaters of the Bad River, six miles from the reservation border in northern Wisconsin ceded territory. The Gogebic Taconite mine’s proposed location threatens the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs, a 16,000-acre wetland complex at the mouths of the two rivers that contains valuable flora and fauna, including wild rice beds of cultural significance to the tribes. These resources are within the Bad River Reservation and contain 40 percent of the Lake Superior Basin coastal wetlands.
“This ecosystem is as good as what we have left in the state and in the world. We all have an impact on the environment. We really have to humble ourselves. Environmental stewardship is a sacrifice.”
-Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Mike Wiggins
We may not be able to undo all of the inequities of the past, but we can learn from the original stewards of the land and require mines to operate responsibly. Surely nobody can argue that mines should be able to store untreated industrial waste in living waters. Closing the mining loopholes would not stop hardrock mining, but it would help protect tribal communities, all of our communities, from the chemicals, heavy metals, and acid mine drainage produced by modern mines.