MAC: Mines and Communities

USA: How to Buy a Mine in Wisconsin

Published by MAC on 2014-09-09
Source: New York Times (2014-09-09)

How to Buy a Mine in Wisconsin

Did Gov. Scott Walker Violate Campaign Laws?

The New York Times (editorial)

31 August 2014

Last year, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and the Republican-controlled State Legislature approved the world's largest open-pit iron ore mine, a gash in the northern part of the state that could be as long as 21 miles, a half-mile wide and 1,000 feet deep.

The mine legislation was bad enough from an environmental point of view: It allows the operator to fill streams with mine waste, eliminates public hearings and reduces the taxes the operator would have to pay.

It turns out to be even more shocking from an ethical viewpoint. Newly released documents show that the mine operator, Gogebic Taconite, secretly gave $700,000 to a political group that was helping the governor win a 2012 recall election. Mr. Walker had urged big corporations to give unlimited amounts, without fear of public disclosure, and many companies that wanted favors from the state happily obliged. Once the recall failed, the favors began to flow, even at the expense of the state's natural resources.

The group that received the money, along with millions of dollars in other donations, was the Wisconsin Club for Growth, an "independent" conservative spending organization that state prosecutors say was actually controlled by R.J. Johnson, one of Mr. Walker's closest campaign aides. Mr. Walker and his aides brazenly violated state campaign finance regulations barring coordination between independent groups and candidate campaigns, first by rounding up the money and then by telling the groups how to spend it.

"The governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth," Kate Doner, a paid fund-raising consultant to the Walker campaign, wrote in a 2011 email to Mr. Johnson. "Wisconsin Club for Growth can accept corporate and personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure." She added that the governor wanted all the advocacy efforts to be run by one group, the Club for Growth, to "ensure correct messaging."

The new documents were released as part of a state investigation into whether Mr. Walker violated Wisconsin campaign laws. Prosecutors have said the timing of the mine approval, following the donation, suggested a clear quid pro quo, a favor in exchange for dollars.

"Because Wisconsin Club for Growth's fund-raising and expenditures were being coordinated with Scott Walker's agents at the time of Gogebic's donation," according to a prosecution statement in the case, "there is certainly an appearance of corruption in light of the resulting legislation from which it benefited."

Mr. Walker says he didn't solicit the mining company donation, and, in any case, he already supported the easing of regulations on mining. But his depiction of himself as above fund-raising doesn't fit the record. Ms. Doner urged Mr. Walker to personally solicit money from the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other wealthy Republicans, and a timeline submitted by prosecutors showed that donations came into Club for Growth within a few weeks or months after the governor met with the donors. It's hardly a coincidence that the governor's union-busting, tax-cutting agenda is the same as that of the right-wing millionaires who helped keep him in office.

Unlimited secret donations pervert American politics, at the state and national levels. They inevitably produce the appearance (and often the reality) of favoritism and corruption, and, in this case, their toxic residue will literally flow into the clean waters of northern Wisconsin.


The Fight for Wisconsin's Soul

By Dan Kaufman

New York Times

29 March 2014

WISCONSIN has been an environmental leader since 1910, when the state's voters approved a constitutional amendment promoting forest and water conservation. Decades later, pioneering local environmentalists like Aldo Leopold and Senator Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day in 1970, helped forge the nation's ecological conscience.

But now, after the recent passage of a bill that would allow for the construction of what could be the world's largest open-pit iron ore mine, Wisconsin's admirable history of environmental stewardship is under attack.

The mine, to be built by Gogebic Taconite (GTac), owned by the coal magnate Chris Cline, would be in the Penokee Hills, in the state's far north - part of a vast, water-rich ecosystem that President John F. Kennedy described in 1963, in a speech he delivered in the area, as "a central and significant portion of the freshwater assets of this country."

The $1.5 billion mine would initially be close to four miles long, up to a half-mile wide and nearly 1,000 feet deep, but it could be extended as long as 21 miles. In its footprint lie the headwaters of the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world and by far the cleanest of the Great Lakes. Six miles downstream from the site is the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose livelihood is threatened by the mine.

To facilitate the construction of the mine and the company's promise of 700 long-term jobs, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation last year granting GTac astonishing latitude. The new law allows the company to fill in pristine streams and ponds with mine waste. It eliminates a public hearing that had been mandated before the issuing of a permit, which required the company to testify, under oath, that the project had complied with all environmental standards. It allows GTac to pay taxes solely on profit, not on the amount of ore removed, raising the possibility that the communities affected by the mine's impact on the area's roads and schools would receive only token compensation.

The legislation has generated fierce opposition since it was first introduced in 2011. The following year, the bill was actually defeated in the State Senate, 17 to 16, owing to the defection of one Republican, Dale Schultz. After the vote, the Republican majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, told me that "the corporation and their attorneys drafted a bill that may have been acceptable in other states," with the implication being that the company had perhaps gone too far for Wisconsin.

Since then, however, Democrats have lost three Senate seats and an even more industry-friendly version of the bill was revived and passed. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a campaign-finance watchdog, GTac executives and other mine supporters have donated a total of $15 million to Governor Walker and Republican legislators, outspending the mine's opponents by more than 600 to 1.

Most distressing to many native Wisconsinites, including me, was the way the bill violated a bipartisan, reform-minded civic tradition called the Wisconsin Idea. For more than a century, the Wisconsin Idea had encouraged the use of scientific expertise to inform public policy, but the mining bill dangerously ignores geological reality.

Before the passage of the bill, Marcia Bjornerud, a geology professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., testified before the legislature that samples she had taken from the mine site revealed the presence of sulfides both in the target iron formation and in the overlying rock that would have to be removed to get to the iron-bearing rocks. (When exposed to air and water, sulfides oxidize and turn water acidic, which can be devastating to rivers and streams, along with their fish populations.) Sulfide minerals, Professor Bjornerud said, would be an unavoidable byproduct of the iron mining. But the bill does not mandate a process for preventing the harm from the sulfide minerals that mining would unleash.

Equally troubling was the more recent discovery by Tom Fitz, a geology professor at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., of a highly carcinogenic asbestos-form mineral at one of GTac's sampling sites. The fibers of the mineral, which would be dispersed in blasting, are like tiny, breathable needles.

Last September, several hundred people gathered outside John F. Kennedy Memorial Airport in Ashland, a few miles from GTac's mining site, to commemorate Kennedy's 1963 speech, which called for legislation to protect the area's natural resources and promoted its economic potential as a scenic region for recreation. One of the last to speak at the event was Mike Wiggins Jr., the chairman of the Bad River tribe and the mine's most formidable opponent.

The Bad River fear the contamination of the fish they depend on for food and the destruction of sensitive wild rice beds that they harvest on the coast of Lake Superior. Mr. Wiggins has voiced his opposition to the mining legislation in private meetings with Mr. Walker, led Wisconsin's tribes in demonstrations at the State Capitol in Madison and allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars of the Bad River tribe's scant resources to legal fees to fight the mine.

The Bad River and several other tribes assert that the state has no right to permit the enormous mine without their agreement since the site lies in "ceded territory," an area covering a large portion of Northern Wisconsin where tribal members maintain special hunting, fishing and harvesting rights enshrined in federal treaties. Last June, one of the tribes established an educational camp near the mining site to draw attention to how the mine would violate its treaty rights, as well as to highlight sustainable alternatives to mining. GTac responded to a minor altercation with protesters unconnected to the camp by hiring an Arizona-based private-security firm, which sent guards armed with semiautomatic weapons to patrol the mine site. (The guards have since been withdrawn; the camp is still there.)

In the Chippewa tradition, a decision is made based on how it will affect people seven generations forward. By contrast, the company's optimistic estimate for the life span of the first phase of the mine is 35 years. Last summer Mr. Wiggins played Governor Walker a recording of Kennedy's speech. Mr. Wiggins said that the governor appeared indifferent to Kennedy's words; Mr. Walker has never wavered in his support of the mine.

Though GTac has already begun bulk sampling iron ore at the site, the mine still faces many hurdles before it can be permitted. The company has filed incomplete sampling applications with the state's Department of Natural Resources. GTac's president, Bill Williams, is facing a criminal inquiry in Spain for alleged environmental crimes, which are unrelated to the GTac mine. The charges state that runoff from an open-pit mine where he once worked as an executive contaminated local groundwater. (Mr. Williams denies the charges and declined to comment on them.) Most important, the tribes will almost certainly challenge the mine in federal court.

Mr. Wiggins and five other tribal leaders have already begun seeking redress from the federal government. Last August, they sent President Obama a letter asking him to direct the Interior Department to prevent the construction of GTac's mine, citing their claims that the mine would infringe on their treaty rights.

Though the letter did not mention it, five years ago Mr. Obama told nearly 400 Native American tribal leaders, "We have a lot to learn from your nations in order to create the kind of sustainability in our environment that we so desperately need." The president said that the tribes "deserve to have a voice" and "will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House." Last week, Mr. Wiggins said that although he has gotten preliminary responses from two federal agencies, he is still awaiting an answer from the president.

Dan Kaufman is a writer and musician.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 30, 2014, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: The Fight for Wisconsin's Soul.

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