Anishinabe Ogitchida (Protectors of the People) blocking railroad tracks on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation in Wisconsin. Photo by Zoltán Grossman
Chippewa Train Blockade Upsets Mining Plans by Zoltán Grossman

1842 Treaty Anniversary
Mining co. withdrew its permit for acid solution mining at White Pine


Trains carrying sulfuric acid from the Southwest to Michigan have been blockaded in the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation in northern Wisconsin since July 22. The acid shipments by the Wisconsin Central Railroad are destined for the White Pine copper mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a huge old mine which has been recently reopened in order to use the sulfuric acid to "leach out" the remaining ore. Sulfuric acid is a controversial by-product of copper sulfide mining,which has been opposed by a Wisconsin alliance of Native Americans, environmentalists, and sportfishers,but this is a different situation of the Copper Range company actually introducing sulfuric acid into the environment to carry out acid solution mining.

The tribal government at Bad River is opposed to the train shipment, but tribal legal efforts against the acid solution mining have not been backed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Without a hearing or EIS, the EPA granted a permit for the project, but now promises a stepped-up "environmental assessment." The Bad River tribal government has managed to stop the train from passing through wetland-rich reservation lands until old defective train bridges are repaired. A group called Anishinabe Ogitchida (Protectors of the People) have been on the tracks to draw public attention to the shipment and White Pine acid solution mining. State Attorney General James Doyle has asked the federal government to inspect the tracks and to draft an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on White Pine, which is five miles from Lake Superior, but pro-mining Governor Tommy Thompson contends that the blockade violates interstate commerce. Police have backed off making arrests. As of August 16, the Ogitchida have let four trains carrying non-hazardous cargo pass through the blockade, after being boarded and inspected.

White Pine is owned by Copper Range, which in turn is owned by INMET, based in Toronto. Walter Bresette, Red Cliff Ojibwe spokesperson for the Midwest Treaty Network Northwest Wisconsin office, is calling on Canadian supporters to picket INMET offices in Toronto in support of the Wisconsin and Michigan Ojibwe. This request holds no matter the outcome of the current blockade. Another mine is proposed at the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation by Exxon and Rio Algom (another Toronto-based company). Exxon lobbyist Peter Theo says the blockade "heightens tensions" over what will happen if his company is granted a mining permit.

Today, at dawn, a sacred fire was lit next to the railroad tracks on the Bad River Chippewa Reservation, within the ceded territory of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

The sacred fire will burn for four days during which prayers, songs and offerings will be made in traditional ceremonies. We, the Anishinabe Ogitchida, will hunt and gather food during these four days. These next few days will help determine our actions for the next few weeks, months and perhaps years. We ask that these ceremonies be undisturbed by train traffic or those who would seek to disrupt these spiritual activities.

Following the four days of spiritual ceremony, we will leave if the following conditions are met:
  1. An immediate cessation of acid mining at White Pine, Michigan until:
    • The Treaty Rights of the Lake Superior Chippewa are considered;
    • There is a full Environmental Impact Statement of the Acid Mine Project
  2. A reclamation plan is developed for the existing tailings area prior to acid solution mining.
  3. A reclamation plan for the brine aquifer seepage at White Pine prior to consideration of acid mining.
  4. The immediate cessation of all sulfuric acid transport in ceded territory until:
    • A full EIS on acid mining [is performed];
    • An inspection, report, and repair of rail lines in our territory;
    • All communities on the rail corridor have trained staff, adequate equipment and emergency response teams to handle an acid spill.

If these conditions are met, this peaceful and spiritual gathering will end at dawn on Friday. For the next four days our community will be safe from this unsafe transport of hazardous materials.

We call on others to seek similar spiritual guidance, and to take similar action.
We call on all traditional and spiritual people to join us in these deliberations.
We call on other Anishinabe Ogitchida to also join us; we will protect our right and our duty to these ceremonies.

Chippewa Train Blockade Upsets Mining Plans

by Zoltan Grossman
A version of this article appeared in The Progressive magazine (October 1996)

At dawn on July 22, a group of five men drove to an isolated railroad crossing on the Bad River Chippewa Reservation in northern Wisconsin. They lit a sacred fire, placed a drum and eagle feather staff on the tracks, and set up four sacred staffs in the four cardinal directions. With its simple ceremony, the small group sent shock waves through government agencies and mining companies in the entire region.

The Anishinabe Ogitchida (Protectors of the People) had halted train shipments of sulfuric acid from the Southwest to the nearby Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Wisconsin Central Ltd. railroad had been shipping the acid to the Copper Range Corporation, to extract ore from the huge, recently reopened White Pine copper mine.

The only tracks to the mine cross the reservation, where they traverse crumbling old trestles over rivers and wetlands. The tribal government had secured a temporary federal injunction against the acid shipments until the trestles were repaired. Elsewhere in Wisconsin, chemical train spills had caused the evacuation of the town of Weyauwega early this year, and part of the city of Superior in 1992. When federal inspectors gave the green light to the acid trains, the Ogitchida acted. Ogitchida spokesperson Butch Stone compared the blockade to U.S. military strategy in the Gulf War: "Cut off its head and the mine will die." The company, however, started exploring options to truck the acid to the mine.

Sulfuric acid is a by-product of metallic sulfide mining, which has been opposed by a strong Wisconsin alliance of Native Americans, environmentalists, and sportfishers. A rally against Exxon's proposed Crandon mine, for example, drew 1000 participants last May. The White Pine controversy, however, stems from a rarer mining method, which injects a sulfuric acid solution into old mines to leach out the remaining ore. The project would use 550 million gallons of acid, injected into underground tunnels only five miles from Lake Superior. While some U.P. residents oppose Copper Range (owned by Toronto-based INMET), many hope the project will reverse the economic bust that occurred when the mine closed two years ago.

On July 1, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted a permit for the project, without first holding a hearing or drafting an environmental impact statement (EIS). Red Cliff Chippewa activist Walter Bresette, a leader of the Midwest Treaty Network, then resigned in protest as Indigenous Chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which formally advises the EPA. He later met with EPA representatives in Chicago, but received only a promise for a stepped-up environmental assessment.

As the Ogitchida press liason, Bresette compared the White Pine and Crandon proposals: "In Wisconsin, the feds are doing a full-blown EIS on one mine, to make sure it doesn't accidentally leak sulfuric acid. Then in Michigan they turn around and authorize a company to actually inject sulfuric acid into another mine, with no EIS. It boggles the mind."

After police backed off from arresting the Ogitchida, a negotiating team was set up that included Stone, Ogitchida attorney Gene Linehan, Tribal Chair John Wilmer, Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa spiritual leader Eddie Benton, Justice Department mediator John Terronez, and Wisconsin Central official Richard White (a white New Zealander sporting a Maori medallion for the occasion). They agreed that the blockade would be unarmed and not subject to police assault.

Stone, who was born and raised on the reservation, said, "As a sovereign people we have an inherent right to defend our land and our way of life. Our sovereignty is recognized by the treaties, but it goes back to a time before white people, before tribal governments ... We are somebody in our own land."

At a powwow honor dance for the Ogitchida, Chairman Wilmer took an unusual step for a tribal official by recognizing that the decisive action against the trains had come from outside his government. "The tribe had been involved in negotiations with state and federal agencies," said Wilmer. "As usual, their ears were deaf. Our words meant nothing to them. Then a few warriors took it upon themselves to defend their homeland ... Now the federal agencies have to do their job, which is the their trust responsibility over Indian lands. We stand behind our warriors. Because of them, the agencies and the railroad are now negotiating." Benton then told the crowd, "You will soon see a change in the attitude and practices of companies surrounding you ... We are not going to rest until this area is a toxic-free zone."

The blockade has brought about strong local unity. Internal conflicts between tribal governments, tribal activists, and "traditional" tribal members are generally set aside on Wisconsin reservations when it comes to environmental threats. But this unity is also now encompassing local white residents who had shown hostility toward Chippewa (Ojibwe) treaties in the early 1990s. A vigil in the town of Mellen where four of the blocked acid tankers had been parked was well received. An Ashland member of an anti-treaty group that had opposed Chippewa fishing rights told one blockade leader, "We're behind you 100 percent." This type of multiracial unity has also marked the grassroots movement against Exxon.

The blockade's reverberations have been felt far beyond the tracks. In Madison, state Attorney General James Doyle asked the federal government to reinspect the - possibly catastrophic - train route and to draft an EIS on White Pine. Pro-mining Republican Governor Tommy Thompson replied that that the blockade violates interstate commerce, and told this writer that he "won't do anything unless somebody asks me to' about the acid trains. The disagreement may serve as an opening shot of a 1998 gubernatorial contest.

Exxon attorney Peter Theo acknowledged that the blockade "heightens tensions" over what will happen if his company is permitted to mine next to the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation. Linehan affirmed that the blockade is a "beacon of light on how to organize and take action. It will set the stage for our environmental movement for a long time."

Towards the end of their physical blockade, the Ogitchida allowed four inspected trains carrying non-hazardous materials to pass through, but on the condition that they ride the trains through the reservation. On August 18, they transferred authority over the legal blockade to the Bad River tribal government, which secured a promise from Wisconsin Central not to ship acid through the reservation unless certain stringent conditions were met. The railroad announced on September 10 that it had moved some acid to White Pine on an alternate truck route. EPA officials began a series of meetings in the area on September 23, to ascertain the next federal move. Bresette commented, "Sovereignty is not something you ask for. Sovereignty is the act thereof. This blockade certainly demonstrates that."

Please call the EPA Region V to urge a full EIS on White Pine solution mining:
Director Valdas Adamkus at (312) 886-3000, and
Water Office Director Jody Traub at (312) 886-0126.

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