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The Planet

April 1998, Volume 5, Number 3


Club Thwarts Exxon in Wisconsin Mining Fight

by Carl Zichella

Midwest Regional Staff Director

Victories over the world’s largest corporations are few and far between. Pulling them off takes extraordinary effort, a sound strategy and good old-fashioned grassroots organizing. Sierra Club activists and coalition partners in Wisconsin did just that and took a round in the battle to stop one of the largest copper mines in North America in the headwaters of the wild-and-scenic Wolf River.

This February, the Wisconsin legislature approved a bill that effectively imposes a moratorium on state permits for sulfide ore (“hardrock”) mines. It blocks all mine permits until the state can certify that at least one North American mine has been operated for a decade and that one has been closed for 10 years without causing ground- or surface-water pollution. (No mines in North America pass that test. Mining is a dirty business.)

The moratorium passed despite an estimated $1.5 million ad campaign by Exxon and its Canadian partner, Rio Algom, Ltd.; fierce opposition by Gov. Tommy Thompson (R); and the involvement of the mining industry’s pet “wise-use” group, People For The West, which lobbied for the bill’s defeat under the astroturf alias “People for Wisconsin.”

The day after the moratorium bill passed the state assembly, Exxon announced it was selling its entire interest in the project to Rio Algom.

Just three years ago such a result seemed unthinkable. Thompson’s budget for fiscal year 1996 eliminated funding for the Public Intervenor’s Office, the state’s environmental watchdog, and transformed the civil service Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into a gubernatorial patronage agency. These moves were viewed as a way to grease the skids for the Exxon–Rio Algom mine. Environmentalists feared that the state could become the next U.S. mining district.

“We referred to Thompson’s attacks, which passed on February 14, as the ‘Valentine’s Day massacre,’” said Caryl Terrell, legislative director for the John Muir Chapter. “That single budget bill was extremely demoralizing.”

But crisis proved an excellent motivator. More than 60 groups, many unaccustomed to working together, formed a loose but coordinated alliance to stop the mine.
In the town of Nashville, site of the proposed mine, a retired Chicago police officer named Chuck Sleeter headed a slate that replaced mine proponents on the town board with the support of Native American voters from the Mole Lake Chippewa tribe.

Madison volunteer David Blouin attended dozens of technical meetings, videotaping the sessions so no sweetheart deals would be cut between the DNR and the mining company. Working with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Club leaders spotlighted flaws in the DNR’s environmental review process and the media picked up the story and ran with it. And state Rep. Spencer Black, a former staff member in the Club’s Midwest Office, introduced his ingenious mining moratorium bill.
The bill was considered a long shot, but it proved to be a perfect organizingtool. Easy to understand and powerful in effect, it became hugely popular with the public.

Sportsmen’s groups flocked to support it. The Native American Community, led by the Menominee Nation, devoted substantial staff, money and legal resources. The Club, Wisconsin Citizen Action and Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade launched a “pledge” campaign to get candidates for the legislature to commit to the moratorium bill. More than 100 signed on. Union members organized opposition in locals. One union leader who appeared in an ad supporting the mine was defeated in his next election by outraged rank-and-file members.

The Club and its partners ran radio ads, wrote letters to the editor and op-eds and organized demonstrations. Assembly Republican leaders adjourned early in 1996 rather than allow an election-year vote on the measure. The ploy backfired. House Speaker David Prosser, who engineered the stall, was upset in his bid for a U.S. House seat, partly because of anger over his role in blocking the moratorium vote.

Moratorium proponents increased the pressure. Groups like the Northwoods Alliance, the Midwest Treaty Network and the Water Campaign organized scores of local governments across the state to oppose the mine or support the moratorium.

Seventy-five counties, cities, villages and towns have so far passed resolutions against or announced opposition to the Exxon mine, mining in general or supported the mining moratorium bill.

Forty thousand petition signatures against the mine were ceremoniously delivered to the legislature in a kayak.

Exxon and Rio Algom fought back with radio, television and print ads, but all they bought was a public backlash. Polling data showed support for the moratorium bill growing, not declining.

Scores of Club volunteers manned phone banks across the state, generating thousands of calls to swing votes in the Assembly and Senate. One Republican assemblyman reported receiving more than 500 calls before his tormented staff turned off his phone system. One Democratic lawmaker complained of being “forced” to vote against all amendments to the bill.

Terrell, who has lobbied on environmental issues for more than two decades, called the effort, “by far the most intensive grassroots lobbying effort I have seen.”

This isn’t over by a long shot — at press time, Gov. Thompson, in the face of enormous public support for the bill in an election year, has said he may sign it into law. Winning passage of the moratorium has increased the coalition’s power for whatever comes next. The DNR may seek an end run around the law. Stay tuned.

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