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Leaching Lake Superior
A Native American community stands up to a giant iron-ore mine.

You've probably never heard of Wisconsin's Penokee Hills, a.k.a. "the Everglades of the North." But just as in Alaska's Bristol Bay and the Mexican state of Sonora (where 10 millions gallons of acid spilled and closed 88 schools this week), the people of the Penokee Hills are fighting to protect their watershed from a giant mining project. As seen in this video produced by Midwest Environmental Advocates, a non-profit legal group, those people are a Native American community that has relied on the watershed for centuries.

Gogebic Taconite—a Florida-based company owned by coal billionaire Christopher Cline—wants to build a four-mile-long open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills that opponents say could become the world’s largest iron-ore operation. The hills are home to the pristine headwaters of the Tyler Forks and Bad rivers, which empty into Lake Superior. At risk are Superior’s largest wetlands and a major source of wild rice for the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe.

The four-year battle over the mine has been fraught with political shenanigans, but the most blatant, perhaps, occurred last year when Governor Scott Walker signed a bill that cut state wetlands protections in sensitive environmental areas. Gogebic (which has already started drilling exploratory wells) helped draft the legislation. The governor’s action sparked grassroots rallies against the mine, which included establishing an educational camp on traditional Chippewa lands near the proposed site. In response, Gogebic hired camouflaged mercenaries equipped with assault weapons to guard its property.

Earlier this year six Chippewa tribes petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene and evaluate the mining project’s impact on fisheries and drinking water. Environmental and Native American groups worry that the mines will become giant caldrons of poisons—such as mercury and arsenic—that could leach into nearby waterways. And for good reason: that's exactly what happened with similar taconite mines in Minnesota and Michigan.

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Rocky Kistner has been a reporter and video producer for more than 20 years, working for news organizations including ABC News, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media, and PBS Frontline. MORE STORIES ➔