April 2010 Newsletter
April 30, 2010
Dear WRPC Member,
On April 15, Jessica Koski, a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), spoke to Rio Tinto shareholders at the company’s annual meeting in London. She asked Rio Tinto’s chairman whether his company was going to respect Eagle Rock, a sacred site for members of the KBIC, where Kennecott plans to construct the portal (entryway) for its proposed Eagle nickel sulfide mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
In the contested case hearing on the proposed mine, Administrative Law Judge Richard Patterson stated that Kennecott and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) “did not properly address the impact on the sacred rock outcrop known as Eagle Rock as a place of worship.” Despite this, former MDEQ director Steven Chester approved Kennecott’s mining permit on January 14, 2010, making the incredibly ethnocentric statement that only buildings may be considered “places of worship.” (see Koski’s op-ed “UP mine threatens sacred tribal rights” enclosed). Chester made his decision before DEQ received clarification from Judge Patterson about DEQ’s responsibility for places of worship under state law.
While Jessica spoke in London, protestors were gathered at Eagle Rock for an “11th Hour Stand” before Kennecott fenced off the area and began cutting trees to clear the land for mine construction. Many of the protestors believe that Kennecott is illegally taking possession of public lands before it has received all the necessary permits for mine construction. On March 24, Kennecott announced that it no longer needed federal authorization from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a groundwater discharge permit and was withdrawing its application for that permit.
But EPA has not yet decided whether Kennecott’s redesign of its wastewater disposal system eliminates the requirement for a permit, said Steve Roy, a geologist with the agency’s regional office in Chicago. “This is still being considered by the EPA,” said Roy. If the company starts building the mine before the government reaches a decision, “they obviously are at some risk,” he said.
Despite the uncertainty of the EPA, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment did not hesitate, based upon the company’s assertions, to give the go-ahead to begin work on the mine. This collusion between the company and the state regulatory agency is exactly what we’ve seen in Wisconsin, when the Wisconsin DNR gave approval for the Flambeau mine despite the failure to conduct a survey for endangered species in the Flambeau River. When endangered mussels were later discovered in the Flambeau, quite by accident, the Sierra Club and the Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa sued the State of Wisconsin for violating the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act and won a temporary injunction halting construction of the mine until the threat to the endangered species could be evaluated.
On April 21, Cynthia Pryor, a prominent mining opponent and director of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, was arrested for “trespassing” on public land in the Escanaba River State Forest in northern Marquette County. Pryor was near the proposed mine site when she was told to leave the area by Rio Tinto security guards. She insisted she was not trespassing as the land is publicly-owned and that Rio Tinto was bulldozing illegally on public land. Rio Tinto and law enforcement claimed that Pryor was actively attempting to stop a bulldozer, a charge that Pryor denies. She was arrested by state and county police and spent two days in jail after pleading not guilty to a misdemeanor charge. Her bail was set at $1000 but she refused to pay the $100 bond and spent another night in jail. The following day she was re-arraigned and dismissed from jail without bond. “I think they were concerned about all the attention this was getting,” she said. Pryor’s pre-trial court hearing is scheduled for 10:30am on May 6. A Citizens Rally, “Free Our Public Lands,” is scheduled for Thursday, May 6 @ 9:30am at the Marquette County Courthouse in support of Pryor.
Despite Kennecott’s “No Trespassing” signs near Eagle Rock, public support for keeping the land public has increased. Charlotte Loonsfoot and Chelsea Smith, members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, decided to “take a stand” for their sacred site by setting up camp at the base of Eagle Rock on April 23rd. They plan to remain for the weekend and perhaps longer. Friends and supporters of Loonsfoot and Smith will be joining them as they prepare for ceremonies at Eagle Rock. This will be a peaceful protest.
Rio Tinto’s decision to have Cynthia Pryor arrested for trespassing may well have set in motion a chain of events that the company may not have anticipated, including increased public scrutiny of the legality of Kennecott’s mine permit. This conflict is far from over.
Al Gedicks, Exec. Sec.