|Victories over the worlds largest corporations are few and far between. Pulling
them off takes extraordinary effort, a sound strategy and good old-fashioned grassroots
organizing. Sierra Club activists and coalition partners in Wisconsin did just that and
took a round in the battle to stop one of the largest copper mines in North America in the
headwaters of the wild-and-scenic Wolf River.
This February, the Wisconsin legislature
approved a bill that effectively imposes a moratorium on state permits for sulfide ore
(hardrock) mines. It blocks all mine permits until the state can certify that
at least one North American mine has been operated for a decade and that one has been
closed for 10 years without causing ground- or surface-water pollution. (No mines in North
America pass that test. Mining is a dirty business.)
The moratorium passed despite an estimated $1.5 million ad campaign by Exxon and its
Canadian partner, Rio Algom, Ltd.; fierce opposition by Gov. Tommy Thompson (R); and the
involvement of the mining industrys pet wise-use group, People For The
West, which lobbied for the bills defeat under the astroturf alias People for
The day after the moratorium bill passed the state assembly, Exxon announced it was
selling its entire interest in the project to Rio Algom.
Just three years ago such a result seemed unthinkable. Thompsons budget for
fiscal year 1996 eliminated funding for the Public Intervenors Office, the
states environmental watchdog, and transformed the civil service Department of
Natural Resources (DNR) into a gubernatorial patronage agency. These moves were viewed as
a way to grease the skids for the ExxonRio Algom mine. Environmentalists feared that
the state could become the next U.S. mining district.
We referred to Thompsons attacks, which passed on February 14, as the
Valentines Day massacre, said Caryl Terrell, legislative director
for the John Muir Chapter. That single budget bill was extremely demoralizing.
But crisis proved an excellent motivator. More than 60 groups, many unaccustomed to
working together, formed a loose but coordinated alliance to stop the mine.
In the town of Nashville, site of the proposed mine, a retired Chicago police officer
named Chuck Sleeter headed a slate that replaced mine proponents on the town board with
the support of Native American voters from the Mole Lake Chippewa tribe.
Madison volunteer David Blouin attended dozens of technical meetings, videotaping the
sessions so no sweetheart deals would be cut between the DNR and the mining company.
Working with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Club leaders spotlighted flaws in
the DNRs environmental review process and the media picked up the story and ran with
it. And state Rep. Spencer Black, a former staff member in the Clubs Midwest Office,
introduced his ingenious mining moratorium bill.
The bill was considered a long shot, but it proved to be a perfect organizingtool. Easy to
understand and powerful in effect, it became hugely popular with the public.
Sportsmens groups flocked to support it. The Native American Community, led by
the Menominee Nation, devoted substantial staff, money and legal resources. The Club,
Wisconsin Citizen Action and Wisconsins Environmental Decade launched a
pledge campaign to get candidates for the legislature to commit to the
moratorium bill. More than 100 signed on. Union members organized opposition in locals.
One union leader who appeared in an ad supporting the mine was defeated in his next
election by outraged rank-and-file members.
The Club and its partners ran radio ads, wrote letters to the editor and op-eds and
organized demonstrations. Assembly Republican leaders adjourned early in 1996 rather than
allow an election-year vote on the measure. The ploy backfired. House Speaker David
Prosser, who engineered the stall, was upset in his bid for a U.S. House seat, partly
because of anger over his role in blocking the moratorium vote.
Moratorium proponents increased the pressure. Groups like the Northwoods Alliance, the
Midwest Treaty Network and the Water Campaign organized scores of local governments across
the state to oppose the mine or support the moratorium.
Seventy-five counties, cities, villages and towns have so far passed resolutions
against or announced opposition to the Exxon mine, mining in general or supported the
mining moratorium bill.
Forty thousand petition signatures against the mine were ceremoniously delivered to the
legislature in a kayak.
Exxon and Rio Algom fought back with radio, television and print ads, but all they
bought was a public backlash. Polling data showed support for the moratorium bill growing,
Scores of Club volunteers manned phone banks across the state, generating thousands of
calls to swing votes in the Assembly and Senate. One Republican assemblyman reported
receiving more than 500 calls before his tormented staff turned off his phone system. One
Democratic lawmaker complained of being forced to vote against all amendments
to the bill.
Terrell, who has lobbied on environmental issues for more than two decades, called the
effort, by far the most intensive grassroots lobbying effort I have seen.
This isnt over by a long shot at press time, Gov. Thompson, in the face of
enormous public support for the bill in an election year, has said he may sign it into
law. Winning passage of the moratorium has increased the coalitions power for
whatever comes next. The DNR may seek an end run around the law. Stay tuned.