- Bad River Train Blockade
The Bad River train blockade was a 1996 protest on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation in Ashland County, Wisconsin USA. Ojibwe activists blocked the railroad tracks that would have brought sulfuric acid to a mine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan bringing national scrutiny on the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and demonstrating the power of Indigenous rights in environmentalism.
The copper mine in White Pine, Michigan had been an employer of thousands in the Upper Peninsula until the massive layoffs of the early 1990s that put the region into economic despair. In Wisconsin, several Ojibwe bands were battling to stop sulfide mining at the proposed Crandon mine with newfound political power stemming from the Walleye War.
On July 22, 1996, a train bound for the White Pine copper mine in Upper Michigan was stopped as it crossed the Bad River Ojibwe reservation in Ashland County. The train was carrying tankers of sulfuric acid for use in pilot solution mining ("Chippewa" 3D; 1996). The mine had drastically scaled back operations and laid-off thousands the previous year due to its diminishing profits. Now, Inmet, a Toronto-based corporation, hoped to inject 550 million US gallons (2,100,000 m3) of acid into the mine to bring out any remaining ore. This raised concerns among environmentalists that the acid would contaminate groundwater and nearby Lake Superior. Sulfuric acid as a waste product was the primary pollutant opposed in the metallic sulfide mine proposals in Wisconsin, and now Inmet was going to take the same chemical and pour it into the ground a mere five miles away from the largest and cleanest of the Great Lakes. Moreover, the EPA granted permission for the experiment without requiring a hearing or an environmental impact statement (Midwest Treaty Network; 1996). Among those astounded by this decision was Walter Bresette, a Red Cliff Ojibwe activist and Indigenous chair of the EPA’S National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Bresette resigned his position and joined with the Native rights group Anishinabe Ogitchida, Ojibwe for “Protectors of the People,” on a new course of action (Grossman 396; 2002).
For weeks, the Ogitchida and white allies camped on the railroad tracks conducting ceremonies and protests. Initially, the focus was put on the condition of the Wisconsin Central Ltd. tracks themselves. The activists insisted they were unsafe, though the state had authorized their use provided the speed of the trains did not exceed ten miles per hour. Wisconsin Central insisted that the Ashland County sheriff arrest the protestors, but with the events taking place on the reservation and involving Native religious practices, the sheriff's office declared it a treaty issue and federal matter and therefore, took no action. (Meersman 3B; 1996).
After federal involvement, it came out that the Ojibwe had interests in the mining project beyond the safety of the tracks. On August 2, 1996, Justice Department mediator John Teronnez arrived on the scene and began negotiations with parties involved in the dispute (Meersman 3B; 1996). During these talks, Bresette and the Ogitchida revealed their deep concerns over the solution-mining and its potential effect on Lake Superior. Furthermore, they insisted the project was illegal because the EPA had given it approval without consulting affected Indian tribes who as sovereign entities were entitled to be involved in the process. An agreement was reached with the protestors agreeing giving up the blockade in exchange for an EPA inquiry into the project. The trains hauled the acid through the reservation and the protestors switched their focus to the mine itself (Maller 5; 1996). However, once the EPA looked closer, it raised enough questions that Inmet suspended its operations. In the face of legal battles over treaty rights, the company withdrew its mining-permit application the next spring.
- Bergquist, Lee. 2002. "Decision puts water quality in tribe's hands; Sokaogon can set standard near mine." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 6/4/2002, 1A.
- "Chippewa Block Train Shipments." 1996. Wisconsin State Journal, 7/23/1996, 3D.
- Gedicks, Al. 1993. The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations. Boston: South End Press.
- Grossman, Zoltan C.. 2002. Unlikely Alliances: Treaty Conflicts and Environmental Cooperation Between Native American and Rural White Communities. PhD dissertation: University of Wisconsin–Madison. http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/diss.html
- Loew, Patty. 2001. Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal." Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
- Maller, Peter. 1996. "Group to protest process at mine: Opponents already blocked acid shipments." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 9/4/1996, 5.
- Meersman, Tom. 1996. "A conflict of environment and economics; Chemical shipments spur safety concerns and a tribal protest." Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Mn.), 8/3/1996, 3B.
- Midwest Treaty Network. 1996. "Train Blockade at Bad River Ojibwa Reservation, WI, to Stop Sulfuric Acid Shipment to Michigan Mine." Web site viewed on July 30, 2004. http://www.alphacdc.com/treaty/mtn-brx1.html
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