In northeastern Minnesota, mining companies tend to call the shots. When one mine asked the state to let it bypass the law and pump pollutants into rivers that flow into Lake Superior, the cleanest of the Great Lakes, the state said fine. And in years past, that would have been that. But there’s a new voice at the table. Native American tribes, which have the right under treaties to hunt and fish on this land, are now asserting that the treaties mean there must be fish in the rivers to catch. This argument could lead to far more comprehensive protection for the waters and land that have sustained them for generations.
Nancy Schuldt is one of the new people speaking at the table. Schuldt, a biologist and aquatic ecologist, is in charge of water quality projects for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. She is a soft-spoken woman with light brown hair and eyes that meet yours with no apology.
The Fond du Lac reservation is on the St. Louis River – the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior and the destination of much of the effluent from the mining companies on Minnesota’s Iron Range to the north. The mines themselves are in the heart of the vast territory the Chippewa bands ceded to the U.S. in several treaties during the first half of the 19th century. Band members have long been convinced that mining pollution has depleted some of the area’s richest beds of wild rice – a staple food with great spiritual significance for them. When Schuldt started working at Fond du Lac in 1997, she began studying the state’s oversight of the mines.
“I’d always assumed that the state had been enforcing its standards,” she said, “until we started reviewing permit renewal applications.” What she found led her to believe that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was routinely bending the rules for mines.
When the agency granted Mesabi Nugget’s request to exceed normal pollution limits, Schuldt assumed the federal government would disapprove the variance. She was dismayed when in December, 2012, the federal Environmental Protection Agency approved the state action.
Six months later, Schuldt’s Fond du Lac Band and the nearby Grand Portage Band sued the EPA. They were joined by two environmental groups, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Water Legacy.
The state had allowed the variance partly because the company said it needed more time to figure out how to reduce its wastewater pollution. The tribes and environmental groups said the variance failed to take into account the needs of aquatic life in the receiving waters, and they questioned why it should continue for 16 years, when the normal limit for such a variance is five years.
In March 2014, as preparations for a court hearing were getting underway, Schultz and the other litigants were amazed when the EPA suddenly admitted it had made a mistake in approving the variance for Mesabi Nugget.
“I haven’t seen anything like it in 30 years of working with tribes and the federal government,” said Jim Zorn, director of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Service.
For the two Indian bands, the dramatic reversal was a long time coming.
Since the 1970s both bands, like other Chippewa Indians in the Great Lakes states, have been building up their natural resource departments. Using federal grants and casino revenues, they restore habitat, study the impact of mercury on wildlife and on tribal health, and monitor air and water quality, among many other projects.
The work has been intentional, according to Sara Van Norman, the attorney representing the bands in the lawsuit. “Fond du Lac and Grand Portage have invested in building their environmental departments so they could have a strong voice in permitting,” Van Norman said. “The bands are very hopeful their efforts will make a difference not just for Mesabi Nugget but for other permits that could impact the ceded territory.”
The bands have used their expertise to become more assertive in confronting what they see as the state’s – and even the federal government’s — failure to enforce their own standards. GLIFWC’s Jim Zorn said people all over Indian country are asking these questions, but the Great Lakes tribes, along with tribes in Washington, are leaders because of their strong connection to the land. “Their life ways are tied to a sustainable ecosystem that continues to provide that upon which they rely,” Zorn said.
Tribal water quality experts like Nancy Schuldt are challenging the draft environmental review of the first-ever copper-nickel mine proposed for Minnesota. They also serve on an advisory committee tracking research on the impact of pollution on wild rice.
In Wisconsin, Chippewa bands are watchdogging plans for a huge new iron mine. And in Michigan, bands are fighting a copper-nickel mine under construction.
Indians in coastal Washington have been leaders in this area since the 1974 Boldt Decision, which ruled the local tribes were entitled to half the salmon catch in the state. As in Wisconsin in the 1980s and Minnesota in the 1990s, legal victories suddenly transformed Indians from outlaws who refused to obey state fishing rules into equal partners in managing a precious resource. Last year a federal court agreed with the tribes’ argument that Washington should remove road culverts that block spawning salmon. In effect, the court told the state it must not destroy habitat the fish need to survive.
The change has taken decades, said GLIFWC’s Jim Zorn. “It’s no longer a matter of 1980s protests at boat landings, (with non-native anglers protesting) Indians spearing walleye. It really is about people coming together and recognizing you can fight over allocation issues all you want, but what good is it if we don’t have a natural resource base?”
So where could things go from here? We could see more lawsuits like the one that prompted the EPA to reverse its approval of Mesabi Nugget’s water quality variance. But tribal leaders say they would rather avoid the courts, by participating early in environmental reviews of proposed developments, and by offering input on forest management plans and other long-term resource management functions.
GLIFWC’s Jim Zorn said native people’s world view and strong relationship to the land presents a different and valuable perspective. “The pressure these days for states to show economic growth, to create jobs – in juxtaposition to the (native) view that a good forest produces maple syrup and medicines – is somewhat of a clash of values,” Zorn said. ”But this perspective, this commitment to protecting a sustainable ecosystem, is beginning to find a home with our neighbors, with people who realize, ‘we live here too.’”