forthcoming in Barbara Rose Johnston (ed.) Life and Death Matters: Human Rights and the Environment at the End of the Millennium (CA: Alta Mira Press 1996)

War on Subsistence: Exxon Minerals/Rio Algom vs. WATER (Watershed Alliance to End Environmental Racism)

By Al Gedicks

On March 29, 1995, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing on the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa Reservation to take comments on Exxon/Rio Algom's proposed underground zinc-copper mine next to the reservation. Tribal members testified about the historical origins of their present reservation and the significance of the wild rice which they harvest from Rice Lake on the reservation.

Fred Ackley, a tribal judge, recalled the history of the creation of the reservation at the hearing:

Charles Ackley, the son of Chief Willard Ackley, still harvests and sells wild rice. He testified about the threat to wild rice from the proposed mine:

Rose Van Zile is a grandmother and a veteran wild rice harvester:


Recent court rulings have upheld the reserved rights of the Lake Superior Chippewa Nation to hunt, fish and gather on public lands ceded to the U.S. government in nineteenth century treaties. For the past decade, Chippewa (Ojibwa) spearfishers have had to defend those treaty rights against those northern Wisconsin residents who accused the Chippewa of depleting the fish populations. After disproving the racially-motivated charges and peacefully resisting mob violence, the Chippewa now face the prospect of toxic contamination of their fish, deer and wild rice resources as a result of large scale mining projects in the Chippewa's ceded treaty lands. The focal point of recent Chippewa resistance to environmental degradation to their traditions is Exxon's attempt to construct a large underground mine next to the Sokaogon Chippewa reservation in northern Wisconsin.

In 1975, Texas-based Exxon Minerals Co. discovered one of the ten largest zinc-copper sulfide deposits in North America adjacent to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa Reservation near Crandon, Wisconsin. Situated at the headwaters of the Wolf River in Forest County, the proposed mine is the largest of a series of metallic sulfide deposits planned for development in northern Wisconsin. The Crandon/Mole Lake mine would extract approximately 55 million tons of sulfide ore during the 30 year life of the project.

In 1993, after prolonged opposition by enviromental and Native American groups, Kennecott Copper, a subsidiary of London-based Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ), began an open pit copper sulfide mine on the Flambeau River outside Ladysmith, Wisconsin. The Flambeau mine is tiny in comparison to the Exxon project. But it represents the "foot in the door" the mining industry has been after since 1968 when Kennecott first discovered the orebody at Ladysmith. "Discovery of the Flambeau deposit," Kennecott geologist Ed May wrote, "has opened the way to the development of a new domestic mining district." In 1982, Exxon Minerals' chief lobbyist James Klauser told the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Association that the state could host up to ten major metal mines by the year 2000, the Ladysmith mine being one of them. Klauser now heads the Wisconsin Department of Administration that oversees the mine permitting process.

Exxon's proposed underground shaft mine would disrupt far beyond its surface area of 550 acres. Over its lifetime, the mine would generate an estimated 44 million tons of wastes - the equivalent of 8 Great Pyramids of Egypt. When metallic sulfide wastes have contact with water or air, the potential result is sulfuric acids, and high levels of poisonous heavy metals like mercury, lead, zinc, arsenic, copper and cadmium. After a decade of facing strong local opposition, Exxon withdrew from the project in 1986, citing depressed metal prices. Exxon then returned in September 1993 to announce its intention to mine with a new partner -- Canada-based Rio Algom -- in their new "Crandon Mining Co." In its report on the Exxon/Rio Algom joint venture, The Northern Miner, Canada's mining industry newspaper, noted that "The only objections raised at the Crandon press conference...came from native Americans who expressed concern over archaeological aspects of the site. No objections were heard from environmental groups." The paper's characterization of the objections from Native Americans as insignificant, compared to the possible objections from non-native environmental groups, is all too typical of the way native cultures have been ignored by the dominant society.


"The threat of annihilation has been hanging over this community since 1975. The mental stress and mental anguish are unbearable at times."

Wayne LaBine, Sokaogon Chippewa tribal planner.

The planned mine lies on territory sold by the Chippewa Nation to the United States in 1842, and directly on a 12-square mile tract of land promised to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa in 1855. Treaties guaranteed Chippewa access to wild rice, fish and some wild game on ceded lands. The Mole Lake Reservation (formed in 1939) is a prime harvester of wild rice in Wisconsin. The rice, called manomim, or "gift from the creator", is an essential part of the Chippewa diet, an important cash crop, and a sacred part of the band's religious rituals. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) emphasized the centrality of wild rice to Chippewa culture in their analysis of Exxon's proposed mine: "Rice Lake and the bounty of the lakes harvest lie at the heart of their identity as a people..The rice and the lake are the major links between themselves, Mother Earth, their ancestors and future generations."

Any contamination or drawdown of water would threaten the survival of both fish and wild rice.The Chippewa were not reassured when Exxon's biologist mistook their wild rice for a "bunch of lake weeds." Later, Exxon maintained that any pollutants from the mine would travel along the rim of Rice Lake and cause no harm to the delicate ecology of wild rice. The tribe asked the U.S. Geological Survey to perform a dye test to determine the path of potential pollutants. The results showed the dye dispersing over the entire lake. Exxon's own environmental impact report blandly mentioned that "the means of subsistence on the reservation" may be "rendered less than effective."

Sokaogon chairman Arlyn Ackley responded to Exxon's announcement to resume the mine permit process by recalling Exxon's previous attempt to develop the orebody:

Half of the projected mine waste is rocky "coarse tailings," which would be dumped to fill up the mine shafts. The other half is powdery "fine tailings," which would be dumped into a waste pond, covering 350 acres (or about the size of 340 football fields), at least 90 feet tall. The water table beneath these ponds is as close as 15 feet down. As proposed, it would be the largest toxic waste dump in Wisconsin history. To control leakage into wells and streams, Exxon plans to place a liner under the waste pond. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that tailings ponds are "regulated...loosely" and that leaks from even the best of dumps "will inevitably occur." The U.S. Forest Service says that "there are currently no widely applicable technologies" to prevent acid mine drainage. The mining industry cannot point to a single example of a metallic sulfide mine that has been successfully reclaimed (or returned to a natural state). This fact was confirmed by a 1995 Wisconsin DNR report.

Besides the mine waste, the half-mile deep mine shafts would themselves drain groundwater supplies, in much the same way that a syringe draws blood from a patient. The wastewater would be constantly pumped out of the shafts, "drawing down" water levels in a four-square mile area. If not adequately regulated, this "dewatering" could lower lakes by several feet, and dry up wells and springs. An Exxon engineer once pointed to the terrain map of the mine and said that, from the standpoint of the wetlands, the groundwater and the overall topography, "You couldn't find a more difficult place in the world to mine."

The potential threat to the economy and culture of the Sokaogon Chippewa from Exxon's proposed mine must also be evaluated in the context of the cumulative environmental threats facing both Indian and non-Indian communities in the northwoods. The Chippewa, along with other Indian nations in northern Wisconsin, already suffer a disproportionate environmental risk of illness and other health problems from eating fish, deer and other wildlife contaminated with industrial pollutants like airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, and other toxins deposited on land and water. "Fish and game have accumulated these toxic chemicals," according to a 1992 U.S. EPA study, "to levels posing substantial health, ecological, and cultural risks to a Native American population that relies heavily on local fish and game for subsistence. As the extent of fish and game contamination is more fully investigated by state and federal authorities, advisories suggesting limited or no consumption of fish and game are being established for a large portion of the Chippewa's traditional hunting and fishing areas."THE WATERSHED ALLIANCE TO END ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM

We like where we're living. They put us here years and years ago on federal land and now that we're here--they discover something--and they either want to take it from us or move us away from it. We don't want to do this. This is where I belong. This is my home. This is where my roots are and this is where I'm gonna stay."

Myra Tuckwab, Sokaogon Chippewa tribal member.

If Exxon could have limited the conflict over the mine to a contest between itself and the Sokaogon, the construction of the mine would be a foregone conclusion. Multinational mining companies have a long record of overwhelming native peoples whose resources they have sought to control. In each case, the corporation has sought to reduce its political and financial risks by limiting the arena of conflict so that the victims are completely exposed to the reach of the corporation but only one tentacle of the corporation's worldwide organization is exposed to the opposition.

The nature of the proposed mine, however, posed a number of environmental and social threats that were of major concern to non-native residents, environmental groups, sportfishing groups, and other Indian Tribes. The nearby Menominee, Potawatomi, and Stockbridge-Munsee Nations would be severely affected by the mine pollution and the social upheaval brought by new outsiders. With Mole Lake, they formed the Nii Win Intertribal Council (Nii Win is Ojibwe for "four"). Unlike the last Exxon battle, the tribes have considerably more revenues available from casino proceeds that can be used to fight Exxon's current proposal. Nii Win immediately began hiring lawyers and technical experts to challenge Exxon/Rio Algom's mine permit application. They also purchased a Nii Win house on a seven-acre parcel, across the road from the Exxon mine site, to monitor all activities at the site. The Oneida Nation, which is downstream from the mine near Green Bay, also joined the opposition. In the distant and recent past, these tribes have survived relocation, termination, and assimilation, against overwhelming odds. They now see the mine as one more threat to their cultures and their future generations.

All five tribes are working in alliance with environmental and sportfishing groups within a campaign called WATER (Watershed Alliance to end Environmental Racism). The Wisconsin conflict over treaty spearfishing pitted Chippewas against some white fishermen from 1984 until the anti-Indian protests ended in 1992. Now the mining conflict finds Native Americans and some sportfishing groups on the same side, opposing an outside threat to the same resources. Trout Unlimited's Wolf River chapter says that "the mine as proposed would be a threat to the Wolf River as a trout stream."

Opening Up the Mine Permit Process

"Our reservation is directly adjacent to this mine project. The mine water will flow through it. How can the DNR possibly discuss socioeconomic impacts without even notifying our tribe of this meeting? Our people stand to lose our very existence. Our wild rice beds will be devastated. Our cultural and spiritual traditions will be seriously damaged--or destroyed. Yet the DNR has the arrogance to assume we don't need to be invited to the table."

Arlyn Ackley, Sokaogon Chippewa Tribal Chairman.

One of the symptons of environmental racism, besides the disproportionate impact racial minorities experience from environmental hazards , is the exclusion of racial minorities from participation in the decision making process. One of the objectives of the WATER campaign is to provide statewide press advisories of any activity by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or the Crandon Mining Co. (CMC) relating to the mine permitting process.

In January 1994 the DNR had planned a series of meetings over three days with officials and consultants of the CMC to determine the scope of study for the social and environmental studies that would be part of the company's mine permit application. Although the DNR did not notify any of the affected Indian and non-Indian communities, word leaked out and WATER issued a statewide press advisory which was picked up over the wire services. On the morning of the first meeting, the headline in the state's largest morning newspaper, The Milwaukee Sentinel , was "Indian leaders blast DNR over meetings on mining project." The DNR's mine project coordinator, Bill Tans, said Chippewa leaders were not invited because the meetings were not set up for public comment. "These are strictly preliminary meetings, and everything can change," he said. Tans explained that the tribes would have an opportunity to comment at the time of CMC's publication of a Notice of Intent and a scope of study for its mine permit application in April 1994. However, from the perspective of the tribes, this effectively excluded them from determining the agenda for the proposed studies related to the mine permit. It also contributes to a "psychology of inevitability" about the mine because all the planning is done behind closed doors and presented to the public as an accomplished fact. As a result of the negative publicity generated by this story, the DNR agreed to set up a fax communication system to notify the tribes in advance of any planned meetings with CMC.

Mobilizing the Grassroots Opposition

"The women have been entrusted with the Water and the men with the Fire. These are two things that sustain life. If you take care of them, they will take care of you."

Eddie Benton-Benai, Three Fires Midewin Society

Even before Exxon/Rio Algom filed its notice of intent to seek mining permits for the Crandon/Mole Lake mine, the WATER campaign announced a statewide emergency rally to stop the proposed mine at the State Capitol in Madison. In March 1994, over 400 people from all around the state rallied at the State Capitol and listened as Frances Van Zile, an Anishinabekwe (Chippewa woman) spoke about the role of women as the "Keepers of the Water" in her culture:

Following the rally at the State Capitol, demonstrators marched to the headquarters of the Wisconsin DNR and to the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Association. The latter is one of the chief lobbying organizations for the mining companies as well as for the mining equipment manufacturing industry in Milwaukee. By their physical presence the WATER campaign intended to put corporate and governmental decision makers on notice that the resistance to this mine project could reach into the centers of corporate and governmental power. Sokaogon Chippewa tribal members Fred Ackley and Frances Van Zile dramatically illustrated this determination to confront corporate decision makers when they attended Exxon's annual shareholder meeting in Dallas, Texas, the following month.

The Exxon Shareholder Campaign

"We see our shareholder actions as a vehicle to give access to corporate board rooms for communities like Mole Lake."

Toni Harris, Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters of Wisconsin

In addition to environmental and fishing groups, the WATER campaign also included various church groups who held stock in several mining companies and were willing to raise issues of social and corporate responsibility through shareholder resolutions. Shortly after Exxon announced its intention to seek mining permits at Crandon/Mole Lake, the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters of Wisconsin, along with six other religious congregations, filed a shareholder resolution on behalf of the Sokaogon Chippewa and the other Native communities affected by Exxon's mining operations. The resolution specifically asked Exxon to provide a report to shareholders on the impact of the proposed mine on indigenous peoples and on any sacred sites within indigenous communities. The resolution also called upon Exxon to disclose "the nature of and reason(s) for any public opposition to our Company's mining operations wherever they may occur."

Exxon immediately informed the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has regulatory authority over shareholder resolutions, that it intended to omit the Sinsinawa resolution from its 1994 proxy statement. The company argued that the resolution is moot because "extensive studies covering the impact on the environment and indigenous people and all other material aspects of the project were prepared by both Exxon and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources" before Exxon suspended the project in 1986.

Sister Toni Harris responded that the studies Exxon referred to did not address the specific questions raised in their resolution. "Most significantly," said Harris, "the 446 page Environmental Impact Statement published in November 1986 was criticized as inadequate by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency." In their letter to the Wisconsin DNR, in reponse to the environmental impact statement for the Crandon project, the Interior Department said it did not "believe there is sufficient consideration of potential long-term impacts associated with the proposed mine development, or of contingency plans to assure that adequate environmental protection will be provided. We also feel that special attention should be paid to the effect of long-term discharge to the Wolf River, and to the water resources of the Mole Lake Indian Reservation." The SEC ruled that the Sinsinawa resolution was not "moot" and that Exxon could not exclude the resolution from stockholder consideration.

With the SEC victory in hand, the Chippewa were able to challenge Exxon on its home turf. Fred Ackley and Frances Van Zile spoke to the resolution and explained to the shareholders that the very existence of their culture was at stake in this proposed mining investment. The resolution received 6% of the vote, or 49 million shares. Most shareholder resolutions of this type receive less than 3% of the vote. While the resolution was defeated, the Chippewa won enough votes to reintroduce the resolution at the 1995 shareholders meeting.


"Crandon Mining Co.'s proposed construction and operation of a hardrock metallic sulfide mine at the headwaters of the Wolf River seriously threatens this magnificent river. Water quality and tremendous ecological diversity is imperiled, including bald eagle, wild rice, lake sturgeon and trout habitat. The Wolf River is the lifeline of the Menominee people and central to our existence. We will let no harm come to the river."

John Teller, Menominee Tribal Chairman.

"The environment comes first," says Jerry D. Goodrich, president of the Crandon Mining Company. "If we can't protect the Wolf, there'll be no Crandon mine." Opponents of Exxon's proposed mine won't argue with Goodrich on this point. The Wolf River is at the center of the northeastern Wisconsin tourist economy and the meeting ground between Indians and sportfishermen who have a history of bitter disagreement over Chippewa spearfishing. The Wolf River, in Langlade and Menonimee counties (see map of sulfide mining in Wisconsin), is the state's largest whitewater trout stream, supporting brown, brook and rainbow trout fisheries. Over 50,000 tourists are attracted to the area every year to enjoy trout fishing, whitewater rafting, and canoeing. The lower half of the river is designated a National Wild and Scenic River.

During Exxon's first attempt to develop the Crandon/Mole Lake deposit, the Wolf River became a rallying point for both environmental and tribal opposition. The Menominee Indian Nation strongly opposed the mine, partly because the Wolf River runs through their reservation. Exxon's mine proposal called for dumping over 2000 gallons of mine wastewater per minute into the trout-rich streams that drain into the Wolf River. A biological consultant hired by Trout Unlimited and other environmental groups, reviewed Exxon's proposal and concluded that "The discharge of waste water from the Crandon Project to Swamp Creek could result in the bioaccumulation of heavy metals in aquatic organisms and changes in the natural species composition of the area." By the time that the DNR held public hearings on the draft environmental impact statement in June 1986, over 10,000 signatures had been collected on petitions asking the governor, the legislature, and the DNR to oppose any dumping into the Wolf River. The Langlade County board had also passed a similar resolution. The mobilization of public sentiment about preserving the pristine quality of the Wolf River became a major turning point in the first Exxon battle because the widely perceived economic threat to the Wolf River tourism industry outweighed any potential economic benefits from the mine project.

Shortly after Exxon announced it would once again seek permits for the mine the Wolf River Territory Association, a group of business people promoting the area for tourism - passed a resolution against the mine. And Herb Buettner, owner of the Wild Wolf Inn and president of the Wolf River chapter of Trout Unlimited, warned that "If the mine were to go in, it would wipe out the Wolf River trout stream and create a pile of tailings that in 50 years would be a Superfund (hazardous waste) site."

Jerry Goodrich's concern for preserving the pristine quality of the Wolf River has not reassured those who are familiar with Exxon's strong opposition to DNR's proposed classification of the upper Wolf River as an "Outstanding Resource Water" (ORW) under the provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. If this status were granted, any water discharged into the Wolf would have to be as clean or cleaner than the water in the river. The first indication that Exxon might revive its Crandon project came in May 1988 when James D. Patton, Exxon Minerals' manager of regulatory affairs, wrote to Wisconsin DNR Secretary Carroll Besadny warning that DNR's proposed classification of the Wolf River "could create a significant potential roadblock to any future resumption of the Crandon project." Exxon's intense lobbying against the designation was counteracted by the combined forces of the Menominee Tribe and the Wolf River Watershed Alliance. The Wolf River received ORW status in November 1988.

Besides Exxon's opposition to ORW classification for the Wolf River, the company's record with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill raised additional doubts about the company's ability to manage a high risk mining venture in the ecologically sensitive Wolf River watershed. Adding to doubts about Exxon's environmental record is the fact that Crandon Mining Co.'s first public relations officer, J. Wiley Bragg, handled public relations for Exxon in Alaska after the Exxon-Valdez spill.

Prior to the first public hearing on Exxon's mine permit application, the WATER campaign ran a series of local newspaper ads which asked "WILL THE WOLF RIVER BE EXXON'S VALDEZ? WHAT IF IT HAPPENED HERE?" The ads emphasized that Wisconsin has abundant clean waters but that the history of metallic sulfide mining is one of poisoned rivers, lakes and groundwaters. The ads urged citizens to attend the DNR public hearing and state their concerns about the proposed mine. Over 300 people, including Native Americans, local property owners, fishermen, small business owners and environmentalists, packed into the Nashville Town Hall in April 1994 to express their concerns. Because of the large number of people who wanted to testify, the DNR stayed past midnight and still was not able to accommodate all those who wanted to speak. Of the 300 people who attended the hearing, only a handful were in favor of the project. Two-thirds of the people who testified mentioned their concern about the Wolf River, local lakes and streams, or groundwater.

Some mine opponents accused the DNR of manipulating the order in which testimony was heard and preventing several knowledgeable anti-mining citizens from speaking until last, when the media and the majority of the audience had left after waiting five hours. Among those who had registered early in the evening but was not called till last was Wisconsin Public Intervenor Laura Sutherland. The Public Intervenor is an office in the Wisconsin Department of Justice empowered to protect public rights in the natural resources of the state. Despite Exxon's objections, the Citizens Advisory Committee, which oversees the Public Intervenor, unanimously directed the Public Intervenor to review Exxon's mine proposal. One of Sutherland's principal concerns in the permitting process was the fact that "The DNR has never before permitted any discharge into ORW waters and this mine proposal, therefore, presents the possibility of a dangerous precedent." Although Sutherland's testimony was not covered in the press reports immediately after the meeting, the Milwaukee Journal featured her written testimony in a front page story the following week, followed by a strong editorial which warned that "The loss of recreation and tourism from a degraded environment could end up outweighing any economic gains from the mine."

Prior to the DNR meeting, Crandon Mining Company president Jerry Goodrich sent out a letter to local residents warning that "Certain groups opposed to mining and other industry development are planning to bus people in from Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee and other distant locations to pack the hearing with opponents of the Crandon Project (or, at least, people who will say they are opponents of the project)." It was the classic "outside agitator" ploy. It backfired when the WATER campaign took out ads in the local newspapers the following week which asked: "CAN WE TRUST EXXON TO TELL THE TRUTH?" The ad pointed out that "There were NO busloads of opponents, there were never any planned. In fact, 68% of those who gave oral statements were from Forest County and the area immediately downriver of the project. The only people that came from "distant locations" were the employees of Exxon temporarily living near Crandon. Mr. Goodrich, where do you get your misinformation?"

In April ,1995 the national conservation group American Rivers, named the Wolf River on its list of the nation's 20 most threatened rivers because of the possibility of pollution from Exxon/Rio Algom's proposed mine. The Menominee , along with the River Alliance of Wisconsin and the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin , provided the documentation on the threat from mine pollution. The day after the Wolf's designation as a threatened river, Exxon announced it was abandoning its plans to dump treated wastewater from the mine into the Wolf River. Instead, the company would build a 40- mile pipeline and divert the wastewater into the Wisconsin River near Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

While the timing of Exxon's announcement may have been calculated to divert attention from the American Rivers announcement and the continuing controversy over mine waste discharges to the Wolf River, mine opponents were quick to point out that the new plan threatens pollution of both the Wolf and Wisconsin rivers. David Blouin, a spokesperson for the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin, said the threat to the Wolf would remain because tailings from the mine would still be stored at the headwaters of the Wolf. Because the Wisconsin River is not as clean as the Wolf, the company would not have to spend as much treating the discharge. In addition, the plan could actually increase groundwater depletion in the area of the mine because of the amount of water necessary to pump the wastes to Rhinelander. Whatever the motivation for the change of plans, it was a retreat from Exxon's previously stated position that they could meet the stringent requirements for discharge into a water body rated as an Outstanding Resource Water.

In all of these activities, the WATER campaign is developing a multifaceted counterstrategy to Exxon's ecologically and culturally destructive mine plans. Through intertribal organization, alliance building with environmental and sportfishing groups, mass demonstrations, shareholder resolutions and mass media publicity, the Sokaogon Chippewa hope to increase the political and financial risks of the project for Exxon and Rio Algom. This was the reason why the Sokaogon and the Nii Win Intertribal Council invited the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) to hold their fifth annual "Protecting Mother Earth Conference" on the Mole Lake Reservation in June 1994, in conjunction with a regional gathering coordinated by the Midwest Treaty Network.

International Networking

"There'll be decades of fallout regardless of who wins this battle. This is one of the great events. We want to put Mole Lake and Exxon on the map."

Walter Bresette, Red Cliff band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Previous IEN conferences brought together community-based indigenous activists from throughout the Americas and the Pacific Islands to work together to protect indigenous lands from contamination and exploitation. IEN's previous efforts have helped grassroots activists defeat a 5,000-acre landfill on the Rosebud Lakota Reservation in South Dakota, and a proposed incinerator and an asbestos landfill on Dine (Navajo) land in Arizona.

Approximately 1000 people gathered on the Mole Lake Reservation during the five day conference. "This is to put Exxon and (Wisconsin) Governor Tommy Thompson on notice that we can bring people up here to stop the mine," said Bill Koenen, an IEN National Council member and a Mole Lake band member. On the last day of the conference, over 300 native and non-native people participated in a "spirit walk" to the proposed mine site where they conducted a spiritual ceremony while tresspassing on Exxon's property. Exxon called the Crandon police but no arrests were made. The police were reluctant to interrupt the ceremony.

The Mole Lake gathering also featured a Wisconsin Review Commission to review the track records of Exxon and Rio Algom around the world. The commission included groups representing farmers, churches, workers, civil rights activists, women, small businesses, tribal governments and recreational groups. A similar commission was assembled in the 1970s by the Black Hills Alliance to investigate the track records of uranium mining companies that wanted to mine in the sacred Black Hills of the Lakota (Sioux).

The panel, chaired by Wisconsin Secretary of State Douglas LaFollette, heard testimony from Native people who came from Alaska, Colombia, Ontario and New Mexico. Testimony focused on people who have been directly affected by Exxon's mining and oil drilling activities and its chemical and oil leaks.

Nearly all of the testimony before the commission was delivered by Native peoples from North and South America, which reflects the fact that a disproportionate amount of resource extraction occurs on Native lands. Native Eyak fisher Dune Lankard explained how the Exxon Valdez spill damaged the resource-based cultures of local Native peoples on Prince William Sound:

After the oil spill, Eyak government leaders complained that Exxon simply refused to recognize their native group. The company took the position that the Eyak were not adversely affected by the oil spill, and consequently, refused to provide food and services which were provided for Natives elsewhere. Exxon was fined $5 billion in punitive damages for economic losses from the spill in 1995. The company is appealing the fine. Some of the most damning testimony came from Armando Valbuena Gouriyu, a Wayuu Indian from the Guajira peninsula, on the northern tip of Colombia, where Exxon operates the El Cerrejon open pit coal mine in a joint venture with the Colombian government. It is the largest coal mine in this hemisphere. Valbuena worked at the huge coal mine, from 1983 until Exxon fired him for his union organizing activities in 1988. The construction of the mine had a devastating effect on the lives of approximately 90 Wayuu apushis (matrilineal kinship groupings) who saw their houses, corrals, cleared ground and cemeteries flattened for the construction of a road from El Cerrejon to the new port of Puerto Bolivar, with no respect for indigenous rights. The excavation of the open pit has also caused the adjoining rivers and streams to dry up, along with people's drinking wells. The area affected is roughly 94,000 acres. Colombian army troops and armored tanks were called in three times to break miners' strikes. In 1992, the London-based Survival International, an international Native rights organization, named Exxon on its list of the top ten companies who were doing serious damage to tribal peoples' land in the Americas. The vice-president of the El Cerrejon mine, Jerry Goodrich, is now the president of the Crandon Mining Company. While Goodrich was vice-president at El Cerrejon, more than 30 workers died during work at the mine. Valbuena testified that Jerry Goodrich "promised us jobs and prosperity and instead worked to destroy our traditional ways and forced us from our land. This must not happen again...To allow this mine is to disappear from the earth."

The Wisconsin Review Commission released its report on the track records of Exxon and Rio Algom on March 24, 1995 - the sixth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In releasing the report, Secretary of State Douglas La Follette urged the state legislature to approve the mining "bad actor" legislation which would require the state to consider a company's past performance before approving state mine permits. "Past violations," La Follette said, "are taken into account for everything from driver's licenses to gaming licenses, but not permits for potentially harmful mining developments." The commission presented its citizens' hearing panel as a model for public participation in the absence of governmental action, as well as for multinational citizens' tracking of multinational corporations.

Exxon was offered the opportunity to respond to the charges in the report prior to the report's publication, but chose not to do so. Instead, Dick Diotte, director of community relations for the company, criticized the report for being "obviously biased" adding that "We're not going to respond point by point." As far as the proposed Crandon mine was concerned, "The mine will be developed with today's technology and shouldn't be judged by things that were done under old technology."

The Movement to Ban Sulfide Metal Mining

Exxon could not have imagined the opposition this project would generate. It has united people from all over the state in defense of our resources. Sportsmen, from the Conservation Congress on down have joined the tribes, environmental groups of every stripe and taxpayers concerned about the long-term societal burden this mine and others like it would create, in fighting back. Those constituencies individually have power. Combined they are extremely powerful. Thanks to this legislation they are being mobilized."

Bob Hudek, Executive Director, Wisconsin Citizen Action.

The typical industry response to any criticism about mine waste problems was that "new technologies" would solve any potential problems. The WATER campaign decided to create a petition drive that would force the industry and the Wisconsin DNR to disclose how these "new technologies" would solve the fundamental problems of acid mine drainage from metallic sulfide mines. The petitions asked the Natural Resources Board, the citizen board that oversees the DNR, to use their rule-making authority to ban the mining of sulfide mineral deposits because of the well-known releases of acid drainage from sulfide metallic wastes and the responsibility of the DNR to prevent pollution resulting from the leaching of waste materials.

In December, 1994, nearly 40 representatives of groups in the WATER Campaign presented over 10,000 signatures on petitions requesting the ban. While DNR Secretary George Meyer told the board that they did not have the authority to ban metallic sulfide mining he admitted that his staff could find no examples of successfully reclaimed metallic sulfide mines. When the board denied the petition, mine opponents immediately filed a petition for a judicial review of the board's decision.

Mine opponents won a stunning victory when a Rusk County judge overturned the decision by the Natural Resources Board to dismiss citizen petitions asking the DNR to come up with rules to ban metallic sulfide mining. The judge cited state statutes which gave the DNR broad powers to protect, maintain and improve the waters of the state. The DNR has filed an appeal of the decision.

While the appeal is in the courts, mine opponents worked with state Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison) to introduce a mining moratorium bill that would prohibit the opening of a new mine in a sulfide ore body until a similar mine has been operated elsewhere and closed for at least 10 years without pollution from acid mine drainage. Despite a well organized grassroots lobbying campaign and an overwhelming Assembly vote (95-4) to bring the bill out of committee for consideration, the powerful mining lobby convinced the Republican-controlled Senate to adjourn a week early to avoid sending the bill back to the Assembly for a final vote. Mine opponents responded to the legislative setback by launching a statewide Mining Moratorium Pledge Campaign. The campaign will ask every candidate for state legislative office to pledge to support the mining moratorium bill when it is reintroduced during the next legislative session in January 1997.

The Federal Environmental Review Process

"Even if the mining company makes substantial financial commitments for restoration of the site, there will more than likely be damages not provided for with financial assurances. The neighbors, particularly the tribes, will receive a relatively meager proportion of the short term economic benefit, but by virtue of the location of their lands, will inherit the brunt of the environmental problems and economic bust cycle. It seems unfair that a large and powerful, but temporarily involved, interested party can reap the benefits, but leave the majority of the costs to less powerful interests who cannot reasonably move from the area to escape long term costs."

Janet Smith, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Green Bay, WI

The construction of the proposed Crandon mine would involve the filling of approximately 30 acres of wetlands. Under the provisions of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) must review such projects. In November, 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Interior Department (DOI) expressed serious reservations about the project:

The DOI recommended that the affected tribes play a greater role in identifying environmental impacts and "impacts to Indian trust resources" as defined in the treaties with the federal government. Furthermore, the DOI recommended that the COE be the sole lead agency for the federal environmental impact statement (EIS) "so that the impacts to Indian trust resources can be appropriately assessed in a purely federal forum. The state does not have the authority to assess impacts to Indian trust lands and thus should have no role in doing so." The COE's decision to conduct its own EIS has provided mine opponents with two separate opportunities to argue their case.

The public hearings held by the COE on the Crandon project brought out overwhelming public opposition in the capital city of Madison, in Crandon itself, and on the Sokaogon Chippewa reservation. At the hearing on the reservation, tribal members expressed their determination to stop Exxon's proposed mine. Bill Koenen, a tribal member and environmental specialist testified as his three sons stood beside him. "Our children will be right behind us to help us defend our sacred land and wild rice beds. And Robert Van Zile, a traditional pipe carrier, reflected the views of many who spoke when he said, "If I have to defend this land with my life, I will."

While Exxon has claimed that its Crandon mine studies are "one of the most thorough environmental studies in state history", the COE has determined that the groundwater models used by Exxon to predict water drawdown around the mine is scientifically inadequate and has proposed additional studies by an independent consultant with no ties to Exxon.


"This move by the Thompson/Klauser administration to fight clean water comes as no surprise. Klauser was Exxon's chief lobbyist when the mining industry helped rewrite Wisconsin's water quality laws that govern mining. They eliminated the Public Intervenor's Office, made the administration of the DNR a political appointment, and are even appealing the state judicial decision that gives the DNR authority to determine what kinds of mining are to be allowed. Thompson will not let anything interfere with Exxon's proposed mine--not State or Federal law, not the will of the citizens, and not the concern for clean water."

Sandy Lyon, WATER Campaign coordinator

In 1984 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would pursue government to government relations with tribes. In 1994-95, three Wisconsin Indian Tribes asked the EPA for greater regulatory authority over reservation air and water quality. The Forest County Potawatomi asked for tougher air pollution standards on its reservation under the federal Clean Air Act. Meanwhile, the Sokaogon Chippewa and the Oneida were granted independent authority from the EPA to regulate water quality on their reservations. Under amendments to the Clean Water Act, the U.S. EPA can designate tribes as independent regulators of surface water quality in the same way the EPA can give authority to states. Tribal regulatory authority would affect all upstream industrial and municipal facilities, including Exxon's proposed mine in the Swamp Creek watershed. Because Swamp Creek flows into the tribe's Rice Lake, the Sokaogon have to give approval for any physical, chemical or biological upstream activity that might degrade their wild rice beds.

At public hearings on the tribal requests, local citizens, lake associations and the Wolf River Watershed Alliance testified in support of tribal regulatory authority. Many of the local lake property owners associations expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the way in which Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and his chief aide, James Klauser, a former Exxon lobbyist, paved the way for mining by making the DNR Secretary a political appointment and eliminating the Public Intervenor's Office. The experts hired by the Public Intervenor had raised serious questions about the scientific adequacy of Exxon's groundwater studies and their waste disposal plans. Many citizens applauded the tribe for trying to preserve clean water for everybody.

Some local business people testified in opposition, charging that the regulations would "shut down northern Wisconsin." This was the same kind of misinformation used by those who opposed Chippewa off-reservation spearfishing during the turmoil lasting from 1984-1992. The Wisconsin Mining Association, representing some of the largest mining equipment companies in Milwaukee, warned that tribal water quality authority "could be the most controversial and contentious environmental development affecting the state in decades."

Within a week of EPA approval of Sokaogon Chippewa and Oneida water quality authority, Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal court, demanding that the federal government reverse its decision to let Indian tribes make their own water pollution laws. Several Republican state legislators have called upon Congress to change the Clean Air Act to disallow tribal authority over clean air standards. Once again, mainstream politicians are using scare tactics to suggest that Indian sovereignty over reservation resources is an economic threat to small business owners while they ignore the serious potential for long term damage to the resource and economic base of northern Wisconsin.

In response to the State of Wisconsin's challenge of the EPA's tribal water quality authority, the Wolf River Watershed Alliance filed an amicus or "friend of the court" brief supporting EPA's approval of requests by the Sokaogon Chippewa and Oneida Tribes. "If the state is stupid enough to appeal this thing, we'll certainly write a brief detailing all the instances where the state has been derelict in its authority or abdicated its responsibility," said Robert Schmitz, president of the alliance. Meanwhile, a federal court ruling in Montana has upheld the right of Indian tribes to set water quality standards on their reservations.

Save Our Clean Waters Speaking Tour

"This is collectively the largest, broadest, multiracial environmental alliance ever formed over a single issue in Wisconsin."

Annette Rasch, Wisconsin Greens

Exxon executives may have believed they could avoid public resistance to their proposed mine by abandoning plans to dump mine wastewater into the Wolf River and divert it 40 miles to the Wisconsin River instead. If so, they seriously underestimated the depth and extent of public opposition. The Wolf River Watershed Education Project was an effort to bring the issue of Exxon's proposed mine to the public that would be directly affected by the mine - either environmentally, economically, or culturally. The project built upon previous joint efforts of grassroots environmental groups, sportfishing groups, and Native American nations. When Exxon's announced its plan to divert mine wastewater into the Wisconsin River, the project expanded to include that watershed.

Beginning on Earth Day, two speaking tours simultaneously went up the Wolf and Wisconsin Rivers, stopping in communities along the way. Major goals of the tour included building momentum for a rally at the Hat Rapids dam on the Wisconsin River, the site where Exxon/Rio Algom proposes to discharge treated wastewater, and to mobilize public support for legislative passage of a moratorium on sulfide mining. The twelve day tour drew over 1000 people in 22 cities and towns. The tour culminated in a rally at the Hat Rapids dam and a parade past Exxon/Rio Algom corporate headquarters in Rhinelander, WI on May 4, 1996 which drew 1,000 people, according to a Sheriff's Department estimate.

Exxon responded to the tour by buying radio and full-page newspaper advertisements in cities and towns along the Save Our Clean Waters speaking tour. Company spokespeople accused mine opponents of spreading misinformation and half-truths about the project without specifically identifying a single example. The WATER Campaign responded with its own radio ads. The text of one ad is as follows: "The DNR couldn't find a single metallic sulfide mine anywhere that had been closed without polluting the water. In light of this fact, it makes you wonder. Why should Wisconsin's water be the proving ground for Exxon's experiment?"

At the same time that Exxon/Rio Algom was accusing mine opponents of misleading the public, two independent experts retained by the Wisconsin DNR raised serious concerns about virtually every aspect of the company's waste disposal plan. "Crandon Mining Co. has been misleading the public," said David Blouin, spokesperson for the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin. "Their claims that the proposal will cause no harm cannot be supported by the inadequate data presented so far." The DNR has asked the company to do further testing to determine the potential for acid generation and toxic metal releases from mine wastes. This research will involve additional costs and will upset the company's permit timetable by at least two years. This will provide ample opportunities to mobilize even greater public opposition to the project.

Whatever the final outcome, the coming together of the five tribes with their non-native neighbors, environmental, and sport-fishing groups to oppose Exxon/Rio Algom has transformed this local battle into what the New York Times has described as "one of the country's fiercest grass-roots environmental face-offs."


"Resource extraction plans...proposed for Indigenous lands do not consider the significance of these economic systems, nor their value for the future. A direct consequence is that environmentally destructive programs ensue, many times foreclosing the opportunity to continue the lower scale, intergenerational economic practices which had been underway in the Native community."

Winona La Duke, Anishinabe (Chippewa) activist

Mining, by its very nature, constitutes an assault on the physical, social and cultural environment. When this assault occurs in ecologically sensitive areas inhabited by native peoples who rely on traditional subsistence economies, the results can be disastrous. In the past, this corporate assault on Native cultures has frequently gone unnoticed and unreported. Chippewa resistance to Exxon's proposed mine emerged at a time when native peoples all around the world were actively opposing large scale destructive development projects on or adjacent to their lands. Their initial efforts to oppose Exxon were favorably viewed by some of their non-Indian neighbors and an effective Native-environmental alliance was born. With the emergence of the Watershed Alliance to end Environmental Racism, a new level of political organization and resistance has emerged to challenge the unquestioned assumptions of global industrialization and the inevitable disappearance of native subsistence cultures.

Bio Sketch

Al Gedicks is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse and a longtime environmental/Native solidarity activist in the upper Midwest. He has served as the director of the Center for Alternative Mining Development Policy and as the executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council. He is the author of The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations (South End Press).



Burger, Julian. The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples: A Future for the Indigenous World. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1990

Grinde, Donald A. and Bruce E. Johansen, Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Land and Peoples. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Clear Light, 1995.

Moody, Roger, The Gulliver File: Mines, People and Land: A Global Battleground. London, Minewatch, 1992.

Plunder! London, 1991. A study of international resistance to RTZ, the world's largest mining corporation.

Rick Whaley and Walter Bresette, Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth. Philadelphia, Pa: New Society, 1994.

Multinational Monitor. Monthly publication tracking the activities of multinational corporations around the world. P.O. Box 19045, Washington, DC 20036.

Higher Values: The Minewatch bulletin.. A network of people concerned about the impact of mining primarily upon the environment and indigenous peoples. c/o Methodist Clubland, 54 Camberwell Road, London, SE5 0EN, England.

Parting Company: The Newsletter of People Against RTZ and Subsidiaries (PARTIZANS), 218 Liverpool Road, London N 1 1LE, England.

Wisconsin Review Commission, Report on the Track Records of Exxon and Rio Algom. c/o Midwest Treaty Network, 731 State Street, Madison, WI 53703

EcoNet Resources for mining activists may be found at:

To subscribe to No Mining WINS, the Wisconsin edition of EarthWINS Daily, send email to:

For facts, with references cited, about the proposed Exxon/Crandon/Mole Lake mine, visit the Menominee Nation Treaty Rights & Mining Impacts web page:


Center for Alternative Mining Development Policy
210 Avon Street, # 4
La Crosse, WI 54603

P.O. Box 31
Springbrook, WI 54875

Indigenous Environmental Network
PO Box 485
Bemidji, MN 56601

Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin
29 E. Wilson Street, Suite 201
Madison, WI 53703

Survival International
11-15 Emerald Street
London WC 1N 3QL