|The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.
Jessica Koski. COURTESY/yellowdogsummer.wordpress.com
Native Americans seek to close loopholes in water law
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor
After a century of bearing more than a fair share of impacts from mineral extraction -- while enjoying few of its benefits -- a number of tribes joined together April 25 to demand the EPA close loopholes in the Clean Water Act that allow mining companies to treat rivers, lakes and wetlands as industrial waste dumps.
“Some of the environmental impacts, like acid mine drainage, will last into perpetuity,” said Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “Access to clean drinking water, clean air, and healthy fish and game are inherent human rights that no lawmaker can give away.”
The tribe is facing off a proposed open-pit taconite mine at the headwaters of the Bad River in Wisconsin, which would affect internationally-recognized wetlands on the shores of Lake Superior.
Wiggins spoke along with other tribal leaders during a conference call designed to draw attention to a new report bolstering their argument for administrative changes to the federal water law.
The 4-mile-long, 1,200-foot-deep mountain-top removal project is slated for an area of aquifer recharge, wild-rice paddies and critical fish-spawning grounds. The mine slag it would create is wrongly classified as benign fill due to loopholes, Wiggins said.
“If the waste rock has the potential to produce sulfuric acid, we should be denying (a permit for) that because of the detrimental impacts onto communities, onto sovereign nations, and ultimately onto the water resources that all of our people and all of these ecosystems depend on,” he said at the conference attended by Native Sun News.
Accompanying him was Rich Janssen, head of the Department of Natural Resources at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation in northern Montana.
“Our tribes do not oppose all mining but we do take our stewardship commitment seriously,” said Janssen. “Nobody should be permitted to store untreated mining waste in rivers or streams. We strongly support closing the mining loopholes in the Clean Water Act,” he said.
The Salish and Kootenai have been working to help threatened bull trout recover from 100 years of mining and smelting operations. The tribes now are fighting two proposed silver mines adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.
The tribes are among those to endorse the new report entitled, “Honoring the River: How Hardrock Mining Impacts Tribal Communities.”
The other endorsers are the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community.
“The indigenous view on water is that it is a sacred and spiritual entity,” said Jessica Koski, mining technical assistant and member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, which has been affected by Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine nickel and copper operation.
“Our communities have a historically intimate connection to water and we are especially sensitive to the impacts of mining on our sacred places and the waters that feed Lake Superior,” she said. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community is opposing mining projects in Michigan that are part of a boom taking place around the Great Lakes area.
IT DOESN’T TAKE AN ACT OF CONGRESS
“Tribes have been disproportionately harmed by hardrock mining and the pollution caused by mining waste,” said Tony Turrini, senior attorney for National Wildlife Federation and one of the report’s authors.
“We’re calling on the Obama Administration to close Clean Water Act loopholes that allow mines to store untreated waste in natural waters. Closing these loopholes won’t stop hardrock mining, but it would help protect tribal communities from the chemicals, heavy metals, and acid drainage produced by modern mines,” he said.
One loophole is found in EPA and Army Corps of Engineers regulations, which provide that “waste treatment systems” are not waters of the United States and therefore are not protected by the Clean Water Act. This exclusion allows mining companies to build tailings dams and reservoirs in low-lying drainage areas that would otherwise be protected.
The other loophole is that EPA and the Corps consider the discharge of tailings from hardrock mines to be fill material. The practical implication of this is another loophole through which the waste is no longer governed by the act.
All it takes to protect the water is an administrative reform by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, Turrini said during the conference.
“Closing the loopholes would not require an act of Congress or new or excessive regulation but would help ensure that mining is done responsibly and prevent the environmental disasters that have been the legacy of hardrock mining in the past,” the report says.
REPORT NOTES NATIVE AMERICANS ESPECIALLY VULNERABLE
“Native Americans are especially vulnerable to the effects of hardrock mining pollution,” the new, illustrated 23-page report says. “This is largely due to the fact that most reservation and trust lands are located in remote areas of the West, precisely where many hardrock mines are found.
“Mining impacts on air, water, and fish and wildlife also affect Native Americans more than other groups of people because many Native Americans continue to practice traditional and subsistence lifestyles. The fish, game, and vegetation contaminated by mine pollution can be a critical and irreplaceable source of food for tribal members and communities. They may also play an important role in religious ceremonies and cultural traditions.”
Tribal ancestral lands “are not just a convenient location temporarily chosen because of the economic opportunities in the area, but a permanent homeland,” the report notes. “Tribal members over many generations have contributed substantial resources to the protection and integrity of their homeland. This commitment to place stands in stark contrast to the large, mobile workforce that comes along with mineral extraction booms,” it notes.
“The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many people on Indian reservations live at or below the poverty level and have limited access to legal, scientific, and political resources. Poorer communities are at a distinct disadvantage in decision making processes dominated by wealthy corporations and government agencies,” it says.
MINING OFFERS FALSE PROMISE OF WEALTH, SEVERS TIES TO LAND
“Because energy extraction and mining can provide some of the highest paying jobs in the rural regions where extraction usually occurs, it is oft en assumed that this development will benefit tribes and local economies,” the report notes. “A majority of tribes that have been promised economic prosperity from mining on or near reservation lands have learned the hard way that these claims can be deceptive,” it continues.
“National or international corporations may generate billions of dollars of energy or mineral wealth but that does not necessarily translate into the accumulation of wealth by reservation residents,” according to the report. “Often, mining actually has an adverse impact on tribal communities causing declines in median income and employment rates and an increase in poverty rates,” it says.
“For instance, there are 12 extractive industries operating within the Navajo Nation, including extensive mining operations, yet over half of the Navajo population lives below the U.S. poverty line. Currently, the unemployment rate is 43 percent and the annual per capita income is $5 ,759 according to the Navajo Division of Economic Development.
“Tribes are able to levy taxes and royalties on mines that are located on reservations but, due in part to historic mismanagement of tribal resources by the federal government, these funds are often insufficient to compensate the communities for the mines’ environmental and health impacts.
“Tribes are not impacted only by mines that occur on reservation lands. Frequently, mines are developed on non-reservation lands to which tribes have other deep historical, cultural, and treaty connections,” the report notes.
“Impacts from mining affect the traditional economic and subsistence activities that continue to be important to many tribes,” it says. On hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the United States, tribes have retained the right to hunt, fish, and gather on off-reservation land, due to ancestral claims. Embedded within treaties are environmental protections of sustenance resources for tribal well-being, the report recognizes.
“Ongoing participation in tribal traditions is a fundamental part of tribal cultural identity,” it adds. “Hunting, fishing, and gathering provide food and medicine and allow tribal members to meet traditional social and ceremonial obligations within their communities. These activities also reflect a deep and abiding respect for the natural beauty and resources of tribal lands.
ALASKA’S PEBBLE GOLDMINE, MONTANA’S HIGHLIGHT PROBLEM
Alaska Native communities around Bristol Nay have said “no” to a proposal by Pebble Limited Partnership to operate the largest open-pit mine in North America because the loopholes allow its copper and gold tailings reservoirs to be located right on top of the river headwaters that nurture the sockeye salmon on which the culture and nutrition of more than two dozen tribal communities rely.
The report examines the Pebble Mine threat, as well as the Zortman-Landusky gold mine impact on the Little Rocky Mountains near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana. Infamous for cyanide spills and acid mine drainage, the mining company there filed for bankruptcy, leaving the Fort Belknap tribes and taxpayers to pay millions in clean-up costs. Moreover it had devastating effects because the land it impacted was sacred to the Gros Ventre, Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.
The report includes a quote from Gros Ventre elder tribal member Catherine Halver of Lodgepole, Montana, saying: "A lot of our ancestors in the past used this mountain for vision quests and prayers. That was a very sacred mountain to our people. Now, you go up there and it is just a little pile of rubble. It really affects the old people; a lot of our burial sites were destroyed. There were people buried all over that mountain.”
(Contact Talli Nauman at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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