This story is part of “Sacred Water,” EHN’s ongoing investigation into Native American struggles — and successes — to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality this week approved a general mining permit and an air use permit for the Back Forty mine in the western Upper Peninsula despite tribal opposition over its location on sacred ground.
The open pit gold, zinc and copper mine would be near tribal burial sites and centuries old raised garden beds along the Menominee River, the center of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin’s creation story.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised, but it makes what we’re trying to do much harder,” said Menominee Guy Reiter, who was reached while en route to the Menominee River to demonstrate and hold ceremony to raise awareness about the recent permits.
Reiter, other Menominee members and tribal allies have spent the past year trying to stop the mine from polluting their culture, and the ancestral land and water that birthed it. The tribe has cited 24 sites of historical and cultural relevance within the mine’s potential footprint.
Reiter, who has emerged as the Menominee’s leading voice in the fight, has been organizing water walks, ceremonies and peaceful protests on and near the Menominee River. Since the Menominee Reservation is about 80 miles from the mine many members visited the sacred ground along the river for the first time in their lives this year in gathering to protest the mine.
The Back Forty fight has taken place largely out of the national spotlight on Native American sovereignty fights over development and natural resource management this year. In the Dakota Access pipeline fight the Standing Rock Sioux were recently handed a victory when President Obama denied a permit on a portion of pipeline that would have passed right by their reservation in North Dakota. However, the company in charge of construction, Energy Transfer Partners, has not backed down and opponents of the pipeline fear that President-elect Donald Trump may reverse the decision. (Editor’s note: Changes made 1/3/17 to reflect the status of the denied permit.)
Also this week President Obama protected more than a million acres of public lands in southeastern Utah largely due to urging from five tribes with spiritual ties to the area, which will be known as Bears Ears National Monument.
Reiter said that the tribe provided comments to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality specific to the cultural concerns given the mine’s location but “we’ve received nothing,” he said. “We’re still waiting.”
There are also environmental concerns: the Menominee is the biggest river system in the Upper Peninsula, forms the Michigan-Wisconsin border and is a crucial waterway for many fish species, including the threatened lake sturgeon. An estimated half of Lake Michigan lake sturgeon come from the Menominee River system.
Joe Maki, head of the mining division of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, acknowledged the tribe’s concerns but said all comments received about the mine received careful consideration.
Menominee chairwoman, Joan Delabreau, said the decision not only impacts the tribe but everyone who lives within the Great Lakes basin. “The approved desecration of our ancestors’ burial sites is absolutely disgraceful. What’s more egregious is the fact that the State of Michigan is knowingly permitting a foreign-company the right to destroy the water and environmental quality,” she said in a statement.
Back Forty has been in the works for more than a decade. The mine would cover about 83 acres near the headwaters of the Menominee River. The company seeking the mine permit, Canada-based Aquila Resources Inc., estimates the mine will yield 532,000 ounces of gold, 721 million pounds of zinc, 74 millions pounds of copper, 4.6 million ounces of silver and 21 million pounds of lead — metals used in many modern-day conveniences.
The mine doesn’t yet have full approval. Maki said that there are still two necessary permits before any mining begins: the National Pollution Elimination System (NPDES) permit and a wetlands permits. The NPDES permit goes through the US Environmental Protection Agency and it’s unclear when it will go through, Maki said.
The wetlands permits goes through the state and Aquila pulled out their original application months ago, Maki said. “I think they might re-submit that next month,” he added.
In the meantime the Menominee aren’t backing down.
“The tribe will continue to fight for the protection of our ancestors and the water and environmental quality,” Delabreau said.