Toxic Racism

Chippewas Resist Deadly Dumping

By Pratap Chatterjee

This article is from the May/June 1997 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the May/June 1997 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 211 cover

For a month last summer, a group of native Americans blocked a railway line near Bad River, Wisc., to prevent trains from bringing billions of gallons of sulfuric acid to dump into an old copper mine. Once sizzling underground, the acid would allow INMET, a Canadian mining company, to extract the last bits of copper from the old mine shafts. Leading the charge on the tracks was Walt Bresette. A Chippewa from the neighboring Red Cliff reservation, Bresette, 49, is a founding member of many indigenous rights groups, including the coalition Anishnabe Niiji ("Friends of the Original People"), which fought mining on native lands, and Ogitchida ("Warriors" or "Protectors"), the Chippewa group blocking the trains. At the time, Bressette was also serving as the first chair of the indigenous subcommittee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Environmental Justice Advisory Panel. If he found no other way to stop what he dubbed "terrorism in the Midwest" than by blocking the tracks, can the new committee be expected to do anything?

His new position was the direct result of an executive order President Bill Clinton signed in February 1994. The order required that 13 major federal agencies -- including the departments of Energy and Transportation -- address issues of environmental injustice. Issued under pressure from "race"-conscious activists in the environmental justice movement, the order was designed to address some disturbing facts the movement helped expose: for instance, that three out of four Americans from minority groups, such as those of African, Asian, Latino and Native descent, live in areas near hazardous waste facilities. In 1980, only one quarter of those living near such facilities were minorities but by 1993 the figures were up to 31%, according to a 1994 report, "Toxic Waste and Race Revisited." Minorities are thus now 47% more likely to live near such waste operations than white people. But doubt about their new advisory role has set in among some activists like Bresette who say the new order has simply added a new layer of bureaucracy without providing any more influence.

Last July, when the train cars began to arrive with sulfuric acid, Bresette used his position to demand a federal investigation. He argued that the shipments violated an 1842 treaty between the Chippewa and the federal government which guaranteed subsistence rights to the tribe but ceded the land to the government. The 28-square kilometers where the mining shafts were dug were within the massive treaty area, but the acidic waste released during the old mining operations and the air pollution caused by an accompanying smelter threaten the Chippewa's subsistence. For 40 years this mining waste has killed all living creatures in the Mineral River, which flows five miles from the mine and into Lake Superior. Both are traditional water and fishing sources for the Chippewa tribe. Bresette says it is a clear example of "toxic racism." It is also an example, he says, of the United States ignoring its obligation to abide by its treaties with sovereign Indian nations.

When no investigation was forthcoming, Bresette and other members of Ogitchida took the law into their own hands. They sat down on the train tracks in early July to prevent the acid from being brought into the area. Later that month Bresette marched into the regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Chicago to demand proper hearings on the matter. In October the EPA decided to launch an investigation. But, by that time, Bresette had renounced his advisory position with the government and returned home to the Red Cliff reservation. "The problem with the executive order is that it is only an expression of the president's wishes. It is not a law. If it conflicts with statutory laws, the law prevails," says Clarisse Gaylord, the director of the office of environmental justice at EPA. Gaylord, who heads up a staff of 11 at the EPA, says that at times her job is frustrating. "What we might call a success today, could be reversed tomorrow," she says.

Take for example the Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. Last summer Gaylord and her staff were able to convince the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) not to build a highway across the college property that would have violated the spiritual and cultural values of the local native community. This winter the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of building the road, rejected the agreement and decided to proceed with the original plan. It is for reasons such as this that Bresette remains highly skeptical of the new "executive order." He points out that the EPA still has not agreed to a full-scale environmental impact assessment of the mining area, preferring to conduct a more narrowly focused environmental "analysis" -- which has not taken up issues from the 1842 treaty. "Pitted against the politics of Washington and the economic might of Wall Street, environmental racism has always prevailed," he says.

Gaylord, who has to also tackle matters faced by the Asian, Latino and African-American population in this country, is still hopeful despite the lack of progress so far. "Without the executive order, it may have been impossible for us to sit down with the DOT in Kansas in the first place. Nor would Walt have been able to convince the EPA to do an environmental study of the White Pine mine," she says. But the office is slowly being overwhelmed by new petitions for help that arrive on their doorstep every day. For example, in Ward valley in southern California, a company called U.S. Ecology is planning to dump low-level radioactive nuclear waste near the desert town of Needles on the land of the Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Quechan, Cocopah and Colorado River native tribes. Although the EPA sides with the tribes, the government of California takes the opposite view. Governor Pete Wilson has taken the EPA to court in an effort to allow the company to proceed with the dumping plan.

In northern Arizona, the Peabody company has been extracting coal for decades on the land of the Navajo and the Hopi. In the process, Peabody has drawn out massive amounts of water from the desert and dumped harmful waste, provoking resistance among the Navajo and long- running lawsuits. In Virginia, a native American community wants help because the state government wants to build a dam on a local river. In Alaska the Eyak tribe wants help to throw a logging company off their traditional land, while in California a basket weavers' association wants help preventing pesticide poisoning of their principal resource. Meanwhile the native American community has not settled into helping Gaylord's office. Several months after Bresette left, the indigenous subcommittee appointed a new chair, Jean Gamache of Alaska. Then in late February, two months after she was appointed, Gamache decided to step down from the position; although optimistic about the committee, she felt she did not have enough time to fulfill its duties. Gaylord is now seeking the third person for the job in less than a year.

To date the EPA appears to be the only agency that has devoted an entire office to this matter. Other agencies like the Defense Department and the Department of Energy have appointed staff members to an inter-agency taskforce that meets every two months to discuss matters in common. And the office has had some successes that have not been reversed. For example, Gaylord and her staff were able to convince the Civil Aviation Authority not to extend the runways of Logan airport in Boston into a predominantly African-American community. Through negotiation with the local community an alternative extension plan was devised. But activists like Bresette are left unsure if the new committees, strategy plans and negotiations will change things for their people. "The idea is a good one but the bureaucracy gets in the way," Bresette says. "Plus I don't think that these non-native people understand the issue of our sovereignty."

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