Published in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, February 12, 2012 with the headline “Flambeau mine gives us a reason to protect the Earth.” A link to the essay appears below.
I think of the boy frequently as I follow the debate surrounding the taconite mine being proposed by Gogebic Taconite LLC for the Penokee Range near Hurley, Wisconsin. The boy was nine or 10. He was born on the Red Cliff Reservation in Bayfield County, Wisconsin. When I met him in the late 1970s he was living downstate, with foster parents, in Portage County. During the three or four years the boy rode the school bus I drove, he never spoke.
On Thursday, January 26, 2012, the Wisconsin State Assembly approved a bill that fast-tracked the permitting process for iron mines. If approved by the state senate and signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker, environmental protections for lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands will be weakened. If remaining state and federal requirements are then met, Gogebic Taconite will receive its permit and offer 700 jobs over the 30 years its open pit will be in operation.
The debate over the mine in the Penokee Range is an example of now-familiar political polarization. Gogebic Taconite, local officials and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin state legislature want to circumvent certain federal and state environmental regulations to start the mine.
Opposing them are concerned local citizens, environmental activists including the Sierra Club and the Red Cliff Band and Bad River Band of Lake Superior who fear that a way of life unique to the region will be destroyed.
The other concerned party is the Earth. Like the boy, the Earth cannot speak. We must speak for it.
The jobs card has been played so often out of the same hands that it’s surprising that anyone still falls for the game. Gogebic Taconite LLC is owned by the Cline Group, a multi-national corporation based in Canada. Gogebic’s president, Bill Williams, appears on its website in a blue-collar shirt next to a statement about the company’s plans for “this important ore deposit” and its commitment to protect the environment and public health and safety.
Gogebic’s proposed mine site is 110 miles northeast of Ladysmith, Wisconsin, where from 1993 to 1997 Kennecott Minerals took 181,000 tons of copper, 103 tons of silver and over 10 tons of gold from its open pit Flambeau Mine. By 2007 reclamation efforts had covered 149 of the 181 acres of the site. By contrast, the first phase of Gogebic’s mining operation will focus on 4.5- by 1.5-mile site covering 4,320 acres, almost 24 times the size of the Flambeau mine.
Despite Kennecott’s efforts significant pollution of the adjacent Flambeau River has been alleged, a danger predicted by environmental groups when Kennecott was granted variances in order to proceed. In January 2011, a Clean Water Act lawsuit claiming that toxic mineral discharges continue to enter the Flambeau River was brought by the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Kennecott and Gogebic are incapable of being objective about whether or not they have or will harm the environment. They will not experience a Pauline conversion and befriend the Earth. They will invariably support rules favoring destroy-as-you-go industries that operate within the comfort zone of a diminish-as-you-go society.
That might be fine if we all didn’t depend on the Earth we share with them for our lives.
The boy who didn’t speak learned early not to cry in order to avoid the pain of abuse. When one day he became ill and didn’t cry the illness had its irreversible, devastating effect. I wonder where he is today and how different his quality of life might be if someone had intervened on his behalf.
I wonder too where the region around Hurley will be years after the taconite is gone and the open pit has been remade into something it never was. What will flow then with the rivers that run from there to Lake Superior?
Examples of environmental devastation like Kennecott’s Flambeau Mine should be calls to act before Gogebic Taconite is allowed to leave us with another reason to look back with regret at what might have been if we had intervened. Unlike the silent boy, we must speak out now because we can.
Link to the essay in the Duluth News Tribune: http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/222576/