Ben Connors steered through the fog. At the end of a hot, summer afternoon, ripe wild rice kernels fell before him into the bottom of a canoe. Just upstream from Connors, a company called Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) proposed to blast and dig a 1,000-foot hole in the ground in order to tap iron ore deposits, a $1.5 billion dollar projects. While some welcomed the promise of jobs, others worried it would threaten the fragile rice sloughs, as well as the headwaters of Lake Superior — home to 10 percent of the world's fresh water.
After three years of heated argument over the project, the company announced last week that it is closing its office in Hurley, Wisconsin — effectively putting the mine on hold. This is welcome news to local activists at the Harvest Education Learning Project, who for two Wisconsin winters have camped outside in protest. It's also good tidings for the Wisconsin Federation of Tribes, who brought the local fight to the federal level last summer when they asked the Environmental Protection Agency to stop the mine under the auspices of the Clean Water Act.
In a public statement last week, GTAC president Bill Williams cited EPA regulations as the primary reason for the company's about-face. He also said that the mining location turned out to have more wetlands than the company had initially foreseen. "It's unfortunate that the federal requirements for mitigating wetlands make it cost-prohibitive for Gogebic to move forward at this time," Williams said.
Although the mine may be halted, GTAC's legacy in Wisconsin will remain. Governor Scott Walker came under fire last year when documents revealed the degree of GTAC's campaign contributions. The filings show that the company contributed $700,000 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which in turn supported Walker and his Republican allies.
When asked by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel if the contributions were part of some "pay-to-play scheme," Walker said he was unaware of the funds. But shortly after his re-election, Walker said he was "thrilled" to pass a revision of Wisconsin's state mining laws. The new non-ferrous mining law,signed by the governor in 2013, significantly weakened environmental protections, eliminated the need for public hearings, and allowed GTAC to pay taxes based on profit, not on the amount of ore removed. The only chance the public had to speak out against the changes in state law was at a hearing overseen by Senator Tom Tiffany,who had received $74,000 in campaign funding from mining interests.
The impacts of mining money hasn't been limited to new legislation. Walker — who also received at least $10,000 directly from Christopher Cline, the owner of GTAC — has appointed primarily pro-mining staff to the state's Department of Natural Resources. In February, Walker appointed GTAC's spokesperson Bob Seitz as executive assistant for the Public Service Commission, a plumb government job.
But GTAC's influence doesn't stop there. Last spring, a few weeks ahead of the Iron County board election — the Wisconsin county within which the company sought to mine for iron ore — residents received mailers with a photo of a bearded, white-haired man, bleakly holding a cardboard sign: "Please help. Need a job." Tagged across a decaying wall lay the question in red block print: "Is this the future of Iron County?" The mailing was sent to 1,000 people, about a sixth of the sparsely populated area. The mailer denounced seven of the candidates as "radical anti-mining" environmentalists. Unusual for an election of a 15-member board where candidates seldom even campaign, the glossy fliers were funded by an equally surprising source — the Koch Brothers-funded political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP).
"We're helping [Walker], as we should," David Koch said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post. "We've gotten pretty good at this over the years. We've spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We're going to spend more."
Even a few thousand dollars, small change for the Koch Brothers, can make a significant difference in the home-spun level of city councils and school boards, where a little political grease goes a long way. Richard Thiede, one of the candidates targeted by AFP's Iron County mailing, hoped to earn $1000 in his campaign fundraising. In comparison, since Citizens United v. FEC, corporate mining interests have donated $15 million to political candidates in Wisconsin, more than 11,000 times Thiede's political budget.
Wisconsin isn't the only example of political battles between un-equals. In school board races in Elizabeth, New Jersey and in constable elections in Texas and in the mayoral race in Boston — where last year outside spending reached $4 million dollars — super-PACs are changing the way local governance works in America.
Especially in regions where extractive businesses are at stake, this influx of corporate funding and the corresponding decline in local agency could have a profound impact on the strength of environmental laws.
As Chris Larson, an irate Wisconsin Democrat State Senator, shot at pro-mining officials at a meeting on wetland deregulation last year, "I think you're mispronouncing democracy."
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Photos by Lois Parshley