Head in any direction on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and you will reach gushing rivers, placid ponds and lakes – both Great and small.
An abundant resource, this water has nourished a small Native American community for hundreds of years. So 10 years ago, when an international mining company arrived near the shores of Lake Superior to burrow a mile under the Earth and pull metals out of ore, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa had to stand for its rights and its water.
And now, as bulldozers raze the land and the tunnel creeps deeper, the tribe still hasn’t backed down.
“The indigenous view on water is that it is a sacred and spiritual entity,” said Jessica Koski, mining technical assistant for the Keweenaw Bay community. “Water gives us and everything on Earth life.”
The Keweenaw Bay Indians are fighting for their clean water, sacred sites and traditional way of life as Kennecott Eagle Minerals inches towards copper and nickel extraction, scheduled to begin in 2014.
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Loophole Lets Toxic Oil Water Flow Over Indian Land
The air reeks so strongly of rotten eggs that tribal leader Wes Martel hesitates to get out of the car at an oil field on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. He already has a headache from the fumes he smelled at another oil field.
Martel is giving me a tour of one of a dozen oil and gas fields on the reservation. These operations have the federal government’s permission to dump wastewater on the land — so much that it creates streams that flow into natural creeks and rivers. And this water contains toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens and radioactive material, according to documents obtained by NPR through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The fumes hitting Martel’s nose are hydrogen sulfide, which can be deadly. So Martel makes sure the wind is at his back before walking over to a pit the size of several tennis courts. Pipes are emptying dirty brown water that came up from oil wells into the pit, which is completely covered in goopy black oil.
The oil is supposed to float to the surface, and then a truck will vacuum it up. Any solid stuff should fall on the bottom of the pit, before the water rushes out and forms a stream. But there are still chemicals in the water — some from the earth, some from the oil, and some the companies add to make the oil flow faster.
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Mining, Pollution, and Environmental Concerns
In addition to initiating important wildlife management programs, Wisconsin’s Indians have also been in the forefront of various environmental causes. The most significant is an effort by the Menominee, Mole Lake Ojibwe, Forest County Potawatomi, and Stockbridge-Munsee to stop mining of zinc and copper sulfides near Crandon, Wisconsin. These valuable mineral ores were discovered in the mid-1970s, and in 1978 the Exxon Minerals Company collected data on the ore deposits.
In 1993, Exxon, along with other mining concerns, formed the Crandon Mining Company so the ore could be mined. Under their plans, the mine was supposed to operate for about 25 years and would produce arsenic, an extremely toxic substance, as a byproduct. The Menominee have argued that this will poison the Wolf River, which is protected by federal laws because of its many important wildlife species. The mine would also endanger the lands and waterways of the Forest County Potawatomi, whose reservation is close to the proposed mining site, and potentially destroy lakes full of wild rice used by the Mole Lake Ojibwe by fouling the water. Wisconsin’s Indian people are not alone in opposing the Crandon mine. Many non-Indian community and environmental groups in northern Wisconsin have also expressed concerns about the pollution the mine would cause.