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Al Jazeera America Trains its Cameras on Wisconsin
A documentary that follows the mining controversy will debut on June 14.

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 rate.

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 wants poverty.”

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 lungs.

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 controversy.

“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 harsher debate.

*This post has been updated with additional information.

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