• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Poisoned Fish, Polluting Smelters, and Worried Workers

Air Date: Week of

Producer Dick Brooks reports from the southern shores of Lake Superior on the controversial Copper Range mine and smelter. The company is the largest private employer on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but it’s also the largest emitter of toxic heavy metals in the Lake Superior basin. Local Indians say Copper Range is a big part of the reason they can't eat fish from the lake. The company has been sued for clean air violations by the EPA, the states of Michigan and Wisconsin and the National Wildlife Federation.


CURWOOD: Toxic contamination in Lake Superior is getting into the food chain. Anyone who eats fish out of Lake Superior is taking a chance. And the more one eats, the greater the likelihood of poisoning. Native people, who rely on traditional diets rich in fish, are especially threatened - a threat documented by a recent study of the area by the US Environmental Protection Agency. This threat is partially behind legal action against the region's major copper smelter. Producer Dick Brooks has our second report from the southern shores of Lake Superior.

(Sound of marina)

BROOKS: The Red Cliff Ojibway Reservation is on the tip of northern Wisconsin that extends into Lake Superior. Tribal fishing boats are tied at the marina here. The Ojibway have treaty rights to fish and gather on Lake Superior and the inland waters of Wisconsin. It's been their way of life for centuries. But today there is a problem. Women of childbearing age are warned not to eat certain fish from the lake or from more than 100 other northern Wisconsin lakes. The fish are contaminated with mercury. Judy Pratt Shelly is a trained environmental specialist, and has studied the fish contamination for her tribe. She's also a mother of an infant son. She heeds the government's warnings not to eat the fish reluctantly.

SHELLY: The Ojibway here are fishing people, and the fish is a part of us just like we're a part of the earth. And if we can't continue fishing and eating the fish, then we're not the same people. Our cultural identity is missing, and part of us is missing, part of ourselves is gone.

BROOKS: Mercury can cause severe human health problems and child developmental disorders. The Ojibway are not the only ones affected. People in all of the communities around Lake Superior are increasingly reluctant to eat the walleye and lake trout they catch. No one knows for sure where the mercury here is coming from, but chances are a lot of it is from the Copper Range smelter, located about 60 miles east of Red Cliff on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Copper Range is the largest emitter of airborne heavy metals in the Lake Superior Basin - three times as big as the next largest source of mercury. The Copper Range smelter, at White Pine, Michigan, processes ore from as far away as Sweden and Indonesia. It's produced more than 3 billion pounds of copper since 1955. Just six miles from the shore of Lake Superior, the mining complex dominates a small river valley surrounded by the Porcupine Mountains. A huge smoke stack rises 500 feet from the valley floor. It spews ton after ton after ton of lead, arsenic, and mercury into the air. Some of these heavy metal toxins fall to the water and surrounding landscape of the Lake Superior Basin. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources tried for over a decade to get Copper Range to conduct emission tests on its stack. Finally, in 1990, the DNR did the test itself and found the smelter in violation of air-quality laws. They then spent two years trying to negotiate a settlement with Copper Range. After watching the negotiations drag on, the National Wildlife Federation, a citizens' group, sued Copper Range to force compliance with clean-air laws. Gail Coyer is the Federation's Lake Superior Project organizer.

COYER: We talked to the company and we said, we would really like to not move forward with this lawsuit, we'd like to talk to you about our concerns. And they said that they were not interested in talking to us about our alleged clean air violations. So then we moved forward to file our lawsuit.

BROOKS: Copper Range's intransigence was nothing new. Internal state documents show the company was aware of its emission violations as early as 1975. Other memos say Copper Range used political pressure to avoid testing and compliance with environmental laws throughout the '80's. The National Wildlife suit forced the State of Michigan's hand. To remain a part of the negotiations, Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelly intervened in the case. He admits the state had been slow to respond.

KELLY: There was pressure for me not to enter the case, because they felt that it might have an adverse impact on the economy if I were to come in and insist on full application of environmental laws, that the Copper Range company might make a decision to move - something they hinted at earlier in the litigation, when it was first started by the environmental groups.

BROOKS: Before long, the State of Wisconsin intervened as well, saying state interests in Lake Superior were threatened by Copper Range. In May 1993, the Federal EPA joined the case. EPA documents show that protecting Ojibway treaty rights to safe fish was a significant factor in their decision. It was the first time that so many governments at different levels had joined together to force a Lake Superior air polluter to obey the law. News of the legal action scared the Upper Peninsula community. Fewer than 10,000 people live in Ontonogon County, and Copper Range is the UP's largest private employer. The company has never said publicly that the lawsuits might shut down the plant . But it has done nothing to dispel that notion either. The few public comments by officials at the plant have been about "counterproductive" and "punishing" lawsuits and low copper prices. Otherwise, Copper Range has remained ominously silent. They refuse to talk to the media or the community. And the community has taken that silence to mean trouble.

(Sound of highway)

BROOKS: White Pine, Michigan is a company town. It was carved out of the North Woods in the '50's to support the mine. About a thousand people live here now, all of them tied to the mine in one way or another. And they're worried that environmentalists are trying to close the smelter.

BUSSIERE: There is a segment of our population that doesn't like to see any smoke coming out of smokestacks, doesn't like to see any thing, any water discharged into any stream. I feel those people are probably very excited and very happy that this is happening.

BROOKS: Dorothy Bussiere is Executive Secretary of the Ontonogon County Development Corporation. She says Copper Range spent more than $150 million dollars in the County over the past five years, and that more than 1500 jobs depend on it.

BUSSIERE: The people who work at the mine are very, very concerned and probably somewhat angry. This is their life.
BROOKS: Who are they mad at?
BUSSIERE: Maybe they're angry, somewhat at the company for having any violations that would have caused the people who filed the lawsuit to do so. And they're probably angry that some of the people that came in here and filed the lawsuit are not Ontonogon County people. Ontonogon County is a very close-knit county. They don't like people from outside of the area telling them how to run and live their lives.

BROOKS: Pollution controls will cost tens of millions of dollars, and potential fines could add millions more to the price of compliance. The public impression in the UP is one of tough times at Copper Range. But the reality may be somewhat different. Copper Range's majority owner is Metall Mining, a Toronto-based subsidiary of a huge German mining conglomerate. A phone call to Richard Ross, Metall's Vice President and treasurer, was promptly returned. He didn't want to go on tape, but he was very willing to discuss what local Copper Range officials wouldn't. Ross says Copper Range is making a good profit, despite low copper prices, and recently invested $50 million dollars to upgrade its mining equipment. Furthermore, Metall is studying a proposed $200 million dollar expansion at Copper Range that would double the smelter's capacity and, according to Ross, bring the smelter into compliance with all environmental laws. That, says Gail Coyer, is what the National Wildlife Federation is after. They don't want to shut down the company, she says - they want to stop the pollution.

COYER: It has nothing to do with being an outsider or living in the area. I live up in the basin too, and I feel very strongly, as a Lake Superior resident, that I have a privilege to live near the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world. But I also have a responsibility to protect it, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

BROOKS: The case isn't scheduled to reach the courts until 1995, and the negotiations continue. The flurry of legal activity has caused the Ojibway to take a closer look at Copper Range. Tribal leaders have met with EPA officials. But so far they are reluctant to intervene. On the Red Cliff Reservation, Judy Pratt Shelly has hired a lawyer to look into bringing a personal case against Copper Range. As an Ojibway, she says her rights are being violated.

SHELLY: These are not just a treaty right, it's a spiritual right. It's a right that is not only being taken away from me but my children, my grandchildren, whatever future generations there may be. And it's not just me, it's other people that really have a right to a safe, clean environment that supports populations of food, that's safe to eat, and there's probably adverse effects on the fish populations themselves.

BROOKS: The government effort to resolve the pollution problems at Copper Range promises to be a true test of the Binational Program for Lake Superior. The outcome may chart the future for resolution of other pollution problems, and provide stronger protection for Lake Superior. For Living on Earth, I'm Dick Brooks.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth