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Thursday, September 08, 2022

Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River holds Water Celebration featuring Native, non-Native speakers on Back 40 mining project

By Michele Bourdieu and Mark Doremus*

During the July 23, 2022, Water Celebration to benefit the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River, Coalition founder Dale Burie, left, presents a Trailblazer award to Ron and Carol Henriksen, leaders of the Front 40 grassroots environmental group, predecessor of the Coalition. Beginning in 2003, the Front 40 fought the Back 40 mining project that threatens the Menominee River until the Coalition took over the work five years ago. (Photo © and courtesy Mark Doremus of Back 40 Film)

MARINETTE, Wis. -- The Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River held their second annual Water Celebration on July 23, 2022, at Stephenson Island, Marinette, Wis., featuring guest speakers -- Native and non-Native leaders in the public opposition to the Back 40 mining project for gold and other metals. The projected open-pit and underground sulfide mine, first proposed by Aquila Resources and now owned by Gold Resource Corporation, threatens the Menominee River that forms a border between Michigan and Wisconsin.

This map shows the approximate location projected for the Back 40 mining project -- on the Michigan side of the Menominee River. (Map © Sue Ann Borchardt at Friends of the Wolf River and courtesy Al Gedicks)

Dale and Lea Jane Burie, founders of the Coalition, welcomed supporters of all ages to the fundraising celebration, which included -- in addition to the speakers -- music by GoodFellas, refreshments, games and a raffle with first prize a canoe and second prize a hand-built guitar -- both valuable donated items.

In his welcoming talk, Dale Burie pointed out that Gold Resource Corporation (GORO) plans to submit five permit applications for the Back 40 to EGLE, Michigan's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. On the other hand, the Coalition has a letter-writing campaign for the possibility of designating the Menominee River as navigable, which would mean federal jurisdiction. In addition, the Coalition shares the concern of the Menominee Tribe about historical preservation of their sacred cultural sites located on both sides of the river.

Lea Jane Burie, co-founder of the Coalition, noted the Coalition has grown larger and stronger and will continue its active opposition to the Back 40 project.

"The Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River, Inc. has experienced phenomenal growth since its inception over five years ago, garnering support across the United States and internationally; we are grateful!" Lea Jane told Keweenaw Now. "The Coalition Board of Directors is strong, and our excellent environmental legal team stands ready for the next steps in protecting the Menominee River from metallic sulfide mining. God is the Force behind our efforts to preserve His creation, and anyone who opposes Him will stand accountable."

Lea Jane Burie is pictured here at the July 23 Water Celebration. (Photo © and courtesy Al Gedicks) 

Erin Davisson, award winning Wisconsin former TV anchor and radio host, served as MC for the event. She said she became involved with the Coalition after kayaking on the Menominee River.

Erin Davisson, former TV anchor and radio host, volunteers for the Coalition and served as MC for the July 23 Water Celebration. (Photo © and courtesy Karen Slattery) 

"My husband and I got a cabin on the river in Wausaukee about six or seven years ago, and we just happened to be kayaking up and down the river and saw Coalition signs and some other 'stop the sulfide mining' signs and thought what is this about?" Davisson said.

They were shocked to learn about the plan to put a huge open-pit sulfide mine only 50 yards from the river and about the pollution it would produce. Since then the couple have put Coalition signs in their yard and Erin has been volunteering to help with social media.

View of the Menominee River from the Michigan side, not far from the Menominee cultural sites and the projected Back 40 mine site. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

Noting that environmental regulators are sometimes pressured by politicians and lawmakers and can't always be relied upon to do their job, Davisson added, "It helps to have citizen groups like ours [and] helps to have the Menominee Nation alongside us to make sure that the river's rights are being protected, that your rights are being protected and the environment is being protected because it's often all too easy for regulators and lawmakers to look the other way if it's financially profitable for them."

Preceding the speakers, Davisson introduced activist Mary Hansen as "our long time volunteer Coalition board member and passionate supporter of the Menominee River." Hansen sang "The Beautiful Menominee River." She organizes almost weekly Friday protests in front of the Ogden Club in Menominee, which was owned by people who supported Aquila Resources.

Mary Hansen, Coalition board member and passionate volunteer, sings "The Beautiful Menominee River" during the July 23 Water Celebration. To listen to her singing, click here for the audio recorded by Mark Doremus. (Photo © and courtesy Karen Slattery)

Following Mary's song, Dale Burie presented her with a Trailblazer award for her years of dedication and hard work for the Coalition.

Coalition founder Dale Burie, right, presents Mary Hansen with her Trailblazer Award. Also pictured is Coalition board member Jeff Budish, left. (Photo © and courtesy Karen Slattery)

The first guest speaker, David Grignon, Menominee Historical Preservation officer, spoke about his work with archaeologist David Overstreet to nominate the 60 Islands ("Dog's Belly") area on the Menominee River (near the projected Back 40 mine site) for the National Register of Historic Places. He reported their success in that effort with the Wisconsin Historical Society and their present efforts to obtain that recognition in Michigan, since the river borders both states. Grignon works with museums as well and is involved in repatriation of Menominee ancestors' remains and funerary objects found in burial sites. He lives on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin and has worked for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin for 31 years.

David Grignon, Menominee Historical Preservation officer, speaks at the July 23 Water Festival, held by the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River on Stephenson Island in Marinette, Wis. (Photo © and courtesy Karen Slattery)

"The Menominee people have been here for thousands of years. Our creation story took place not far from here at the mouth of the Menominee River, and I was hearing that the ancestral bear came out of the ground," Grignon said. "Our name Menominee in the Algonquin language is 'people of the wild rice' and the historical record said this river was choked with wild rice at one time and we've harvested that for thousands of years. We have a name for ourselves -- one from our tribal elders. It means 'the ancient people' because we've been here so long and since time immemorial, and we use that phrase and the documents that we put forward through NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] and through the National Register nomination that the Menominees were always here." 

Grignon also told stories, both legends and history, about the Menominee land and their connection to the river that bears their name. He mentioned, for example, the Treaty of 1836, when the land was ceded to the United States Government and how, thanks to their Chief Oshkosh, they were able to stay in Wisconsin rather than being relocated to Minnesota.

Grignon noted the cultural resources the Menominee are trying to protect in nominating 57 sites for preservation include their burial sites, mounds, raised garden beds, historic storage pits, dance rings and more.

Burial mound near the Menominee River, not far from the proposed Back 40 mine site. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

"For me it's very rewarding working on that," Grignon said. "We consider this our home, the land we're on today -- the banks of this river. The river itself is Menominee and we want it to be be pure as it is today for as long as who knows and we will still come here to do our ceremonies. We will still come here to the mouth of the river."

The next speaker, Sayokla Kindness Williams, represented the Western Mining Action Network (WMAN) and the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN).

Listening to Mary Hansen sing "The Beautiful Menominee River" are Sayokla Kindness Williams, second from left, and friends at the July 23 Water Celebration. (Photo © and courtesy Mark Doremus)

"I'm from the Oneida nation of Wisconsin so we are visitors on this land and I want to say thank you and acknowledgements to Dave Grignon for that beautiful history you just shared with us," Sayokla said. "And it's a reminder today that this is Menominee land, the Menominee land, the river on both sides of the bank where this mine site originally is proposed. We're stopping it and so I want to thank all of you for gathering here today to work towards that -- to gather together because we're stronger together as a people."

Williams is the WMAN Indigenous Caucus coordinator and a member of the IEN Board of Directors. She noted WMAN's mission is "to protect communities, protect wildlife and protect the water and everything from the negative impacts of mining."

WMAN  also offers communities access to scientific, technical and legal resources and annual mini-grants of $5,000, Williams explained.

"We knocked down Aquila and we will knock down this next company and the mine will never happen," Williams said.

She also introduced her Dine friend Talya Boyd, Indigenous Environmental Network mining organizer, who is from Arizona but now based in Gallup, New Mexico.

During the July 23 Water Celebration,Talya Boyd, Indigenous Environmental Network mining organizer, speaks about water problems caused by mining in the Southwest. Pictured at left is her friend Sayokla Kindness Williams. Both are involved with the Indigenous Environmental Network (EIN). (Photo © and courtesy Al Gedicks)

"In our homelands we're inundated with mining -- everything from uranium [to] coal, oil and gas," Boyd said. "Our waters have been compromised, and out in the Southwest we don't have a lot of surface water. We depend on our groundwater, and so a lot of our groundwater has been contaminated. And so we're working to get cleanup. We're in constant communication with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. EPA -- and we're constantly fighting for cleanup and cumulative studies within our communities."

Both Williams and Boyd brought their young sons to the Water Celebration to demonstrate the reason for their work -- to benefit future generations.

During the celebration Mark Doremus captured the mood of the event in the following video clip:

Video of the July 23, 2022, Water Celebration hosted by the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River on Stephenson Island, Marinette, Wis. (Video © and courtesy Mark Doremus of Back 40 Film)

The next speaker was Kathleen Heideman of the Mining Action Group (formerly Save the Wild U.P. and now part of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, or UPEC). Local U.P. residents will recognize Heideman for her hard work and detailed research during the efforts to stop the Eagle Mine near Big Bay, Mich. She continues to study mining impacts, including the threats from the Back 40 project, and presents scientific facts from her research at public meetings.

At the Water Celebration, Kathleen Heideman of the Mining Action Group speaks about past struggles to stop sulfide mining and offers a challenge for the future. (Photo © and courtesy Karen Slattery)

Heideman told the audience at the Celebration that she was there to speak about the past and future of the fight against sulfide mining.

She began by giving credit to some heroes and heroines -- "trailblazers" -- who fought against pollution of Lake Superior:

  • Verna Grahek Mize of Houghton who wrote thousands of letters to call attention to Reserve Mining's taconite tailings that caused pollution of the lake near Silver Bay, Minn. Reserve Mining dumped 67,000 tons of taconite waste tailings into Lake Superior every day for years. A judge finally took action against the company in 1975.
  • Julia Tibbetts, founder of Superior Public Rights in Marquette, who was instrumental in using the Public Trust Doctrine to prevent Cleveland Cliffs from turning Lake Superior near Presque Isle Park into a toxic dump of industrial waste in the 1970s.
  • Tribes, environmentalists and sportsmen who fought the Crandon sulfide mine near the Wolf River in Wisconsin together from 1973 to 2003, focusing on Indigenous rights to clean water and wild rice sites. Their grassroots efforts led to the Wisconsin moratorium on sulfide mining, which lasted until 2017.**
  • Laura Gauger and her fight against the Flambeau Mine in Ladysmith, Wis.***
  • Groups -- including the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, Save the Wild U.P., the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, National Wildlife Federation and more who fought for two decades against the Eagle Mine -- a sulfide mine under the Salmon Trout River near Big Bay -- and its mill in Humboldt, Mich. "We tried hard but we failed to stop that mine," Heideman said. She added examples of Eagle Mine's expansion and permit violations since it began operations.
  • Ron and Carol Henriksen and the Front 40, followed by the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River and the Menominee Tribe -- still fighting the Back 40 mining project. 

"The Back Forty mine says they want to extract gold, zinc copper, and lead from an enormous open pit mine on the bank of the river. Members of the front 40 worked tirelessly to educate the public about the dangers of sulfide mining," Heideman said. "At the same time the Menominee Indian tribe was working on the Wisconsin side of the river -- working to identify and protect culturally important sites on the Menominee River in the area identified by the Menominee people as containing their ancient garden beds and burial mounds. Grassroots resistance to the Back Forty project quickly spilled over on both sides of the river and down to the area that we stand on today."

She added that grassroots resistance has now led to successful litigation by the Coalition, the Menominee Tribe and an adjacent landowner. Yet the bankrupt Aquila Resources, which initiated the Back 40 project, has been replaced by Gold Resource Corporation, so the struggles continue as mining proponents claim our Western civilization depends on mining.

"Mining employees of Aquila tell us when they talk to the media that we need mining in the UP or 'we wouldn't have cars, we wouldn't have anything,''' Heideman noted. "They falsely claim mining is essential and clean and safe and modern and tastes great. They claim that sulfide mines like the Back Forty will produce wastewater cleaner than the river. Despite their assurances, remember there is no safe sulfide mine anywhere and there is no metallic sulfide mine that has ever operated without polluting water. Remember that their tailings and waste rock are not going to be shipped to Canada and they will stay here in perpetuity threatening to contaminate our fresh water for centuries to come."

Heideman's challenge for the future includes changing our lifestyle to eliminate "surplus stuff" that we don't really need. She cited a long list of those items, including high-tech devices, from cell phones to electric vehicles, that all include metals -- metals that could be mined in the U.P.

"So how do we protect our clean water resources from mining?" Heideman asked. "There is always a public fight to educate and resist, but perhaps increasingly there is a private internal fight. I'm afraid we all need to work on this private internal fight to curb our consumption of resources."

"We owe it to future generations to make wise informed decisions about our resources and try to avoid the mistakes we've made in the past," Heideman concluded. "Less industrial development of Menominee River corridor is the only way we can guarantee a future with more star gazing more Milky Way more howling more Northern Lights more silence, more owls more frogs. Less mining and no sulfide mining in the Menominee River is the only way we can safeguard a future of healthy fish and clean water for now and in the century to come." 

The final speaker, Al Gedicks, Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, has been a passionate opponent of sulfide mining for decades. He presented the audience at the Water Celebration a historical overview of the 20-year effort to protect the Menominee River, citing especially the potential threats of a projected tailings dam for the Back 40 project.

Speaking at the July 23 Water Celebration, Al Gedicks describes the dangers of tailings dams and questions claims by the Gold Resource Corporation (GORO), present owners of the Back 40 project, who have taken over the permitting process from the now bankrupt Aquila Resources. (Photo © and courtesy Mark Doremus)

Gedicks began by noting this event celebrates the progress made during the 20-year fight to keep a sulfide mine off the Menominee River.

"If the enthusiasm I've experienced from talking to people today is any indication, there's not going to be a Back Forty mine next to the river," Gedicks said. "The reason that is the case you can better appreciate if you understand how the last five years have been a major turning point not only for this project but for the international mining industry as well."

Gedicks pointed out the importance of Judge Pulter's denial of Aquila's Wetlands permit (in January 2021) in a contested case in which the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, represented by Earthjustice attorneys; the  Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River; and adjacent landowner Tom Boerner  challenged the 2018 permit that had been approved in a political move despite objections by the then Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) staff. Scientific evidence in the case showed that the permit failed to disclose negative impacts to wetlands.****

"They [Aquila] spent $100 million and they didn't get anything for it," Gedicks said. "Not only did they not get anything for it they got their permits overturned. They were told their staff and their credibility was worthless and at that point they could not raise funds to finance the project any further."

Gedicks explained that the only company willing to invest in the Back 40 was Gold Resource Corpoaration (GORO) of Denver, Colorado, whose president told their shareholders that the Back 40 had been fully permitted.

"That is a bald-faced lie," Gedicks said. "They never had all the permits."

He noted Aquila only had one permit, the wastewater permit. Three others -- Air Quality, Wetlands and the Mining permit -- were under contested cases; and Aquila had to withdraw two applications for the dam safety permit because EGLE (successor to the DEQ) rejected those as insufficient.

The tailings dam permit is important because tailings -- the waste material left over from the crushing and chemical processing of the gold and zinc ores -- are the most serious problem.

"When you have a sulfide ore body where they are going after infinitesimal amounts of gold and zinc, you have a rock to metal ratio of three million to one," Gedicks explained. "In other words for every three tons of ore and waste that is extracted they get one gram of gold. Three tons of waste, one gram of gold -- what that means is that the vast majority of the rock ends up as waste that contains the sulfide minerals that generate acid mine drainage and release heavy metals in the environment. And these mine wastes are stacked in what is known as tailings ponds or tailings facilities. The one that was on the record that Aquila presented was going to be 138 feet high, was going to cover 123 acres; and it was going to contain hundreds of thousands of gallons of mine waste water coming out of the processing of the ore, containing cyanide, sulfuric acid and other toxic chemicals that would be stored on top of the tailings pond."*****

The original plan for Aquila's tailings dam was the upstream design, which is less expensive but prone to failure because of liquefaction, when seemingly solid materials can act like dangerous, fast-moving liquids and cause the dam to fail. Gedicks cited the example of the 2019 Brazilian tailings dam failure that released 3 billion gallons of sludgy mine waste that killed over 270 people. Since then several countries have banned the upstream dam design.

This photo shows some of the damage from the 2015 Samarco dam failure at Mariana, Brazil, which devastated downstream villages and polluted 415 miles of water courses. (Photo courtesy Al Gedicks)

Gedicks also told the audience that he and Dale and Lea Jane Burie met with Allen Palmiere, GORO president, and Kim Perry, GORO's chief financial officer in Menominee, Mich., on April 7, 2022, five years to the day of the founding meeting of the Coalition. Gedicks said he confronted Palmiere with the lie about permits being approved and Palmiere denied lying to investors and said a dam safety permit would not be required because GORO planned to do a "dry stack," or filtered tailings, considered more stable but very costly.

"If you look at their economic projections their project assessment, their PEA, projected economic assessment of the mine, you will find that the total project cost of this Back Forty project is $250 million," Gedicks noted. "$47 million is allocated just for the tailings dam and the wastewater containment area associated with the tailings dam. $47 million -- that's one of the largest single expenses of the project. If you do a dry stack every geologist that knows anything about tailings will tell you that dry stacking is much more stable but it is also five to 10 times more expensive, so if you multiply 47 million times 5 you get 200-plus million dollars which is almost the total cost of doing the mine in the first place."
 
In his conclusion, Gedicks added that since GORO lacks sufficient funding to do what they promise, the public needs to pay close attention if they proceed with the permitting process.

"If we take Aquila's record and if we take the false promises that have been made by both Aquila and by GORO (Gold Resource Corporation), we should be prepared to confront a whole series of more misinformation about this mine," Gedicks said. "And we ought to be prepared to respond to it in the same way that we responded to other opportunities in the past when they had public hearings -- to call out the company, their scientists and people in the agencies if they do not pay attention to what we're saying because what we're saying is the truth and what they're saying is a falsehood."******

In a thank you email message to Coalition supporters following the Water Celebration, Dale and Lea Jane Burie expressed their appreciation to all who participated:

"We are very proud of the Coalition!" the Buries write.   "Everyone was geared up and ready to handle the masses. We witnessed an outpouring of work, shouldering of responsibilities, and labor of love for the Menominee River that filled our hearts with appreciation for everyone's assistance for the Coalition's major fundraiser."

Visit the Coalition's Web site at https://jointherivercoalition.org/ and their Facebook page, Save the Menominee River - Stop the Back 40 Mine!

Notes:

* Mark Doremus, videographer from Back 40 Film, contributed audio files, transcript, video and photos for this article. Thanks to Mark and to his wife, Karen Slattery, who took several of the photos.

** See Al Gedicks' account of the Crandon Mine struggle in his book Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.

*** See The Buzzards Have Landed: The Real Story of the Flambeau Mine, by Roscoe Churchill and Laura Furtman (Gauger). See also Laura's Web site, Flambeau Mine Exposed.

**** See our Jan. 11, 2021, Keweenaw Now article, "Water protectors celebrate judge's denial of Back 40 sulfide mine Wetlands Permit."

***** See the Mining Action Group's Feb. 12, 2019, article, "New ​Report Finds Fault with Sulfide Mine’s Plans," which discusses problems with Aquila's tailings dam as described in their amended mining permit application.

****** An adapted version of Al Gedicks' address at the July 23, 2022, Water Celebration appears in the recent UPEC Newsletter: UP Environment, Summer 2022 (pp. 5-7).

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