The border between Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula traces its way along the Menominee River. The Menominee Tribe once hunted, gathered, and roamed on both sides of this river, in both states. Today, they live on a small reservation in Wisconsin, thanks to treaties with the United States government that forfeited their land.
The Treaty of the Cedars, signed in 1836, is proving particularly burdensome today.
In exchange for 600 barrels of salt, 40,000 pounds of tobacco, and $700,000, this treaty saw the Menominee tribe cede over four million acres in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It is on this land that Aquila Resources, a Canadian company, now plans to build the Back Forty Mine—a sulphide mine that risks destroying a part of the Menominee's cultural heritage.
The tribe's former territory would yield 17 tons of gold, 140 tons of silver, and 2,300 tons of copper, Aquila says. These metals will be mined from an open pit spanning 84 acres across ancestral Menominee territory, plunging 750 feet into the Earth, some 50 yards away from the Menominee River.
Aquila has now secured three of the four permits that it needs to go ahead with the project, and is waiting to hear back from Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality on the fourth. This final permit will allow it to dredge and fill the wetlands that surround the river—and to start to dig the mine.
The site where the mine will be built is peppered with archaeological sites that serve as a reminder of the tribe's history on both banks of the river. It remains spiritually important to the Menominee, including landmarks such as burial mounds, dance rings, and raised garden beds.
"The tribe's philosophy is about handing stories down through generations. We don't have a lot of things written down. You can't hand over a book and say: 'Read that.' Those kinds of things are in the landscape," says Douglas Cox, who became chairman of the Menominee Tribe last month. "We'd be failing—I'd be failing today—if I didn't do my part in protecting those things that are important to the tribe."
The tribe isn't alone in its concerns. In an objection to the Back Forty Mine sent to Michigan DEQ last week, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed that Aquila had neglected to properly consider the history of the site and its significance to the Menominee Tribe.
"The applicant has not provided sufficient information to support the assertion that the proposed project would likely not impact potentially eligible or eligible resources. Historical and cultural resources should be addressed for the entire expanded project site," the letter says.
In the early days, Aquila Resources came to Kenosha, the Wisconsin city where the Menominee is headquartered, to give presentations and consult with the tribe, Cox says. He describes their visit as little more than a box-checking exercise, and says that talks broke down once the tribe made its opposition clear.
The Menominee are now using other tactics to resist the Back Forty Mine. They are well-versed in combating such projects, having been a part of the successful effort in the 1990s to oppose the Crandon Mine, a copper and zinc mine proposed by Exxon near the Wolf River.
They are currently awaiting a hearing on the objection they filed with the Michigan DEQ over Aquila's mining permit. And in January, the tribe went a step further, filing a lawsuit against the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The tribe and their attorneys have argued that, because the river can be used for interstate commerce, the EPA should have undertaken the permitting process itself, rather than delegating it to the Michigan DEQ. The EPA's failure to do this amounts to a violation of the Clean Water Act, they allege.
A federal permitting process would be more in-depth, and would give the Menominee more input and control over the outcome, says Janette Brimmer, an attorney from Earthjustice, which is representing the tribe.
"There would be really big difference with respect to consultation over the cultural and historic impacts," she says. "The federal government has consultation obligations to tribes, and there's a very specific process that's laid out in law on how that's supposed to progress. That process is not what's happening with the state."
Aquila did not respond to requests for comment. An EPA spokesperson says: "EPA doesn't comment on pending litigation."
The potential environmental impacts of the mine are also a concern for residents of Wisconsin and Michigan.
The EPA's objection to the mine, reported first by the Eagle Herald, also slapped Aquila on the wrist for incomplete and inconsistent site plans, not identifying all the mine's impacts, and failing to address risks to water quality, including how the company would prevent the leaching of toxic compounds from the mine into the Menominee River.
Aquila has already had to withdraw a wetlands permit application once because it was deemed incomplete.
Nearby city governments and residents have echoed these environmental concerns. Various county boards from areas in Wisconsin have filed resolutions against the mine, including the counties of Marinette and Outagamie and the town of Wagner, citing fears over water quality, potential economic losses, and concerns for species like sturgeon and freshwater mussels that live in the river.
"We can't find one sulphide mine in the country that hasn't had some level of problems with contamination. One of the big challenges with these mines is, once you have that waste, you're holding onto it in ponds forever," says Allison Werner, local groups director at the River Alliance of Wisconsin.
"There's also a big economic risk. Part of the Menominee River flows into Lake Michigan, so you're looking at a big fishing industry and tourism related to using fresh water, which would all be at risk if this mine were to have a problem," Werner says. "Basically, we're choosing which economy to have: a freshwater-based economy or a mining economy."
New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.