Northern Wisconsin tribes opposed to commercial metallic mining in Oneida County

Several northern Wisconsin tribes have come out against potential commercial mining in Oneida County, less than two weeks before a related referendum will appear on the county’s midterm ballot.

Voters in Oneida County will be asked Nov. 6 if they support leasing county-owned lands in the Town of Lynne for metallic mining.

The town contains a copper-zinc deposit on county property, which could be tapped to bring economic benefits to the area. However, the Tribal Council for the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians is “extremely concerned” with how commercial mining in the region could harm the environment and related cultural activities.

The Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council also released a resolution, which says any metallic mineral mining in the upper Great Lakes region would pose “significant and detrimental threats to the environment, water, wildlife, animals and places of historic, religious and cultural significance.”

The referendum comes after Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill to end the so-called “moratorium” on sulfide mining earlier this session. Under previous law, companies seeking a sulfide mining permit had to prove they operated for 10 years and were closed for 10 years without polluting groundwater or surface water.

Billy Fried, a member of the Oneida County Board’s Planning and Development Committee, says the referendum was first floated by fellow member Scott Holewinski. The five-member committee voted unanimously to move the proposal forward, and the full board voted overwhelmingly in favor of adding the referendum.

“As a landowner of the biggest deposit zone in the county, we as owners are asking taxpayers — who are owners too — if they even want to consider this,” Fried said. “I love any time when we can bring issues to the people to give us guidance on that.”

He says he doesn’t like the idea of mining the county land, and will personally vote no on the referendum question. But he’s not dead-set against it either.

When he was asked to vote on moving the referendum forward, he knew he would be against using the land for mining. But he believes county residents should get the chance to weigh in on the subject.

Fried represents Oneida County’s District 17, and says he’s most interested in what his people have to say.

“If the results come in that people in District 17 are looking at it, seeing more economic value, I would be open to it,” he said. “I think I have to be; I’m elected to represent the district. It’s my responsibility to open up to it.”

One major point of disagreement between the tribal groups and county officials is how hazardous metallic mining can be.

Fried stresses that he’s not a scientist, but says “there seems to be evidence that new regulations and new practices… bring a cleaner mine than there could have been 100 years ago.”

He said some fellow board members went to visit other comparable mines, and they were impressed by the technologies and other advancements they saw. That strengthened the argument, he says, for at least looking into the possibility of mining the deposit.

Still, the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council argues that metallic mineral mining “has not become less risky.”

The council says there are “countless examples of nonferrous metallic mineral development that have caused serious and long-lasting pollution of surface water, groundwater, wetlands and other ecosystems.”

“I can understand the concerns,” Fried said. “We don’t want to hurt the environment… first and foremost, we want to be protecting our environment.”

If the referendum passes next week, Fried says the county is prepared to bring together all involved stakeholders to discuss how to move forward.

“The county has set it up so there’s good representation at the table… We will basically have a checklist that everyone’s expectations are met,” he said. “We’ll get different people to the table. If they’re not happy with it, that stops the process right there.”

That could spell trouble for the future of the potential mine, as the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians seems intent on keeping it from opening.

According to a tribal resolution, the Tribal Council “will seek any and all legal avenues” to challenge any mining activities in Lynne or the county overall that would harm the environment, including any historical sites and any hunting, fishing and gathering rights.

See the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians resolution here:

See the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council resolution here:

See the county board’s referendum resolution here:   

See more on this year’s referendums:

–By Alex Moe