Wisconsin’s political divisiveness continues to fester in
the pristine, isolated region of Penokee Hills. The divisive issue this time? Mining.
Northern Wisconsin’s mining controversy has gained national notoriety and is now the centerpiece of an
upcoming documentary presented by Al Jazeera America’s Fault Lines. “Wisconsin’s
Mining Standoff” aims to offer perspectives from both sides of the issue. While some citizens
in the region fear environmental disaster and potential health risks, others
argue the project will bring much-needed job growth to a hard-hit community.
“I came away from reporting this story with a sense that the
stakes couldn't be higher for the citizens of northern Wisconsin on all sides
of the issue,” says Josh Rushing, co-host of Fault Lines and central
contributor to the documentary.
Rushing and Al Jazeera America partnered with
Milwaukee-based company 371 Productions,
who developed, wrote and produced the documentary.
The mine would break ground in the Gogebic Iron
Range, an 80-mile long belt in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of
Michigan containing an estimated two billion tons of iron ore. Gogebic Taconite
(GTac), an iron-ore mining company based in Florida, is behind the $1.5 billion project
that promises 700 long-term jobs to combat the area’s 13.6 percent unemployment
The documentary features Leslie Kolesar, chairwoman of the
Iron County Mining Impact Committee and an outspoken proponent of the mine.
“We need our community to exist, and if we don’t get
something here, our community is going to continue to decline,” she says in the
documentary. “You’re going to continue to see an area of high poverty. Nobody
The Penokee Hills region is home to the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, who fear the mine will threaten their
livelihood and destroy the natural landscape. According to a January report issued by the Department of Natural Resources, iron ore
mining could damage the region’s wetlands, surface- and groundwater. Potential
water pollution could affect the wild rice beds and freshwater fish upon which
the Bad River Band relies.
The project also poses potential health risks to people in
the area. Tom Fitz, a geology professor at Northland College in Ashland,
tells Fault Lines of a highly carcinogenic asbestos-form mineral at one of
GTac’s sampling sites. He says that if this rock were to be broken up during
excavation, hazardous materials could become airborne and lodged in people’s
Along with provoking both fear and hope for locals, the potential mine has also sparked controversial political
action. In February 2013, the Wisconsin state Senate passed a bill loosening
environmental regulation for iron mining. According to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by
Wisconsin native Dan Kaufman, the
bill “allows the company to fill in pristine streams and ponds with mine
waste.” He backed up his comment by citing Section 295 of the bill, which only
approves filling streams and ponds if the company re-creates the filled-in area
in another location, It also eliminates a public hearing requiring GTac to
testify, under oath, that the project had followed all environmental standards.
Despite weakened state regulations, the company will also
encounter federal regulations that could hinder the company’s ability to obtain
a mining permit. Because of this, the future of the mine remains unclear.
“The Indian tribes will likely need a strategy like [going
to federal courts] to stop the mine because state laws have been significantly
weakened,” Rushing says. “However, sources tell us that federal intervention is
unlikely to be robust until actual documented damage is done.”
Rushing argues that democracy is at the core of this
“This is a story that anyone, anywhere
should pay attention to, because no matter where you live, something similar
could happen to you,” he says. “From my point of view, besides the land and
water, democracy is what is at stake here.”
The documentary premiers on Al
Jazeera America Saturday at 6 p.m. locally. (Find out if your provider carries Al Jazeera America here.) You can also catch a quick trailer of the show to get a sense of the debate.
Rushing also photographed his reporting experience in the Penokee region. The result is an artful depiction of Wisconsin’s harsh winter alongside an even
*This post has been updated with additional information.