Lake Superior, the largest lake in the world, lies at the border between Canada and the United States. A mining boom is currently underway along its shores, with dozens of new mines proposed. Planning and permitting processes for these new mines happen individually, with no formal process for consideration of cumulative effects or historical legacies of past mines. Moreover, many of these proposed mines affect indigenous groups within the watershed, yet planning process often excludes the tribes.
My current research examine the planning process for Lake Superior mines. One case study of particular interest is the proposed Penokee Range iron ore mine on the south shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin. If permits are approved, this would become the world's largest open pit mine. The mine would lie just upstream of the Bad River Band Reservation, so mine wastes would drain through reservation waters into the Kakagon Sloughs, one of the world's largest remaining freshwater estuaries (and a RAMSAR wetland).
Wisconsin currently has some of the world's most restrictive mining planning requirements. GTAC, the mining company, is demanding that the state change its mining laws so that mining companies would be excluded from requirements to protect water and wetland quality. Without these changes, the company argues, it would not be possible to maximize mine profits.
The tribe's Chairman, Mike Wiggins, is leading opposition to the mine. Scientist from within the tribe's natural resources department argue that acidic wastes from the mine could destroy the wild rice beds in the Kakagon Sloughs, which are of enormous historic, spiritual, and economic significance to the band. Mercury released into the atmosphere from taconite processing would also add to the existing mercury load in Lake Superior, even though international agreements stipulate that no new sources of mercury from within the basin should be permitted.
The political and legislative debates over the proposed new mining laws have brought questions of tribal consultation, environmental planning, and decision-making into sharp focus. Over the past 150 years, a complex body of state, federal, and tribal environmental legislation regarding mining has developed that guides the planning process. In the 19th century, in order to make mineral resources available for white exploitation, federal laws stripped Indian nations of their land tenure rights. Indians had exploited the mineral resources of the Keweenaw Peninsula on Lake Superior for at least seven thousand years, soon after the last glacier retreated. In the 1840s, word of copper deposits on the Keweenaw Peninsula spread to the east coast and Europe. The federal government negotiated the Treaty of La Pointe in 1842 with the Anishinaabeg nations, which required them to cede northern Wisconsin and the western half of the Upper Peninsula to the United States. Mining companies soon moved into the area, exploiting first copper and then the rich iron ore deposits.
In the mid 1840s, the first of the iron ranges in the Great Lakes drainage basin came into production near Marquette, Michigan. Iron tailings were often less toxic than copper tailings, but the refining process added significant quantities of mercury to the watershed, soon becoming an important source of mercury to the lake. Some iron mines were vast open pits; others were deep shaft mines, and both led to significant changes in the aquatic habitats that tribal members relied upon. Miners sliced off forests and the soils that sustained them to create the open pit mines, leading to increased runoff and siltation in tributary streams. Deep shaft mining pumped ground water to keep the mines dry, lowering the water table and creating silt-filled runoff. Timber was needed to shore up shaft tunnels in deep mines and create safe passages, while the charcoal-fired iron furnaces of the smelting furnaces demanded huge quantities of hardwoods. By 1903, for example, the iron furnaces of Michigan's Upper Peninsula devoured wood from 30 acres of hardwood forest a day, every day of the year.
By the late 20th century, tribes used new federal environmental laws to challenge state mining planning processes that would have deprived them of clean water. Current mining laws in Wisconsin can only be understood in this historic context. Conflicts between American Indian tribes and the State of Wisconsin over a planned gold mine in the Wolf River watershed led to fundamental changes in mining laws in 1996. The new law required that proposed mines could not be approved without historical information proving that the company had successfully controlled mining waste in the past.
But by 2011, with mineral prices increasing and a pro-business government in power, the state began a legislative effort to reverse those laws. The tribes have turned to federal law to slow (or possibly block) the easing of environmental requirements. While treaties between the US federal government and sovereign Indian nations require formal consultation before environmental permits are issued, the states within the Lake Superior basin often ignore these planning and consultation requirements, which leaves them vulnerable to federal lawsuits. This case study provides an excellent test of the roles of history and environmental justice in sustainable mine planning.
Environmental history cannot tell us whether mining in a particular place should happen—that is a social decision, not a scientific or historical decision. But historical perspectives can remind us that there is nothing natural or inevitable about resource development. Resources are contingent and they change over time. Calling something a resource pulls it out of its intricate social and ecological relationships and isolates it in our gaze. Yet those isolations are illusions. We still live in intimate relationships with larger landscapes, even if we think technology isolates us from ecological constraints. When minerals are dug from the ground, when trees are cut in the forest, when flood waters are diverted, when rivers are dammed, when animals are changed from fellow creatures to livestock resources, we set into motion subtle processes of toxic transformation that have legacies far into the future.