Honoring the River: How Hardrock Mining Impacts Tribal Communities

“Access to clean drinking water, clean air, and healthy fish and game are inherent human rights that no lawmaker can give away.”

By Lacey McCormick, National Wildlife Federation

For more than a century, American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives have suffered the impacts of hardrock mining while enjoying few of its benefits.

Honoring the River


A new National Wildlife Federation report, Honoring the River:  How Hardrock Mining Impacts Tribal Communities tells the story of hardrock mining and tribes, from the checkered history of federal legislation allowing mining companies to lease minerals on tribal lands—often without tribal consent—to the many new mines being proposed near tribal communities.

“Access to clean drinking water, clean air, and healthy fish and game are inherent human rights that no lawmaker can give away,” said Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, whose land has been threatened by Gogebic Taconite’s proposed open-pit iron mine. “Some of the environmental impacts, like acid mine drainage, will last into perpetuity.”

The report was endorsed by the following tribes and tribal organizations impacted by hardrock mining: Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community.

Two loopholes in the regulations implementing the Clean Water Act have allowed mines to treat rivers, lakes and wetlands as waste dumps for toxic, acid-producing tailings. According to the report, the metals mining industry has already contaminated an estimated 40 percent of the headwaters in western watersheds.

That figure doesn’t surprise Rich Janssen, head of the Department of Natural Resources at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in northern Montana. These tribes have been working to help threatened bull trout recover from 100-year old mining and smelting operations. The tribes now find themselves fighting two proposed silver mines adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

“Our tribes do not oppose all mining but we do take our stewardship commitment seriously,” said Janssen. “Nobody should be permitted to store untreated mining waste in rivers or streams. We strongly support closing the mining loopholes in the Clean Water Act.”

Native American Man


“The indigenous view on water is that it is a sacred and spiritual entity,” said Jessica Koski, mining technical assistant of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, which has been affected by Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine operation. “Our communities have a historically intimate connection to water and we are especially sensitive to the impacts of mining on our sacred places and the waters that feed Lake Superior.”

Honoring the River discusses one of the nation’s worst mining disasters, the Zortman-Landusky gold mine near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana. The mine is infamous for its cyanide spills and acid mine drainage—and the responsible company ultimately filed for bankruptcy, leaving the Fort Belknap tribes and taxpayers to pay millions in clean-up costs.

“A lot of people made money from the Zortman-Landusky mine, but we were not among them,” said Tracy King, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “We were left with degraded cultural sites, smaller fish and wildlife populations, and a huge price tag for reclamation and water treatment. Tribal communities should be wary of the economic promises made by mining companies.”

The report also focuses on the controversial Pebble copper and gold mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Pebble mine would be the largest open pit mine in North America and would be in the headwaters of the greatest remaining wild sockeye salmon fishery on earth. The Bristol Bay watershed sustains more than two dozen Alaska Native communities that have practiced a salmon-based culture for millennia.

“Tribes have been disproportionately harmed by hardrock mining and the pollution caused by mining waste,” said Tony Turrini, senior attorney for National Wildlife Federation and one of the report’s authors. “We’re calling on the Obama Administration to close Clean Water Act loopholes that allow mines to store untreated waste in natural waters. Closing these loopholes won’t stop hardrock mining, but it would help protect tribal communities from the chemicals, heavy metals, and acid drainage produced by modern mines.”

“National Wildlife Federation has worked with tribes for more than 20 years to protect wildlife,” explains Garrit Voggesser, national director of Tribal Partnerships for NWF. “Our current efforts to minimize the threats of hardrock mining exemplify how tribes and NWF can make a difference in our shared values for the protection of environmental and cultural resources.”