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Great Lakes Article:

ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS: Wisconsin tribes likely to set stricter water standards in light of court ruling

Associated Press
06/07/2002

WASHINGTON — Some Wisconsin tribes see an opportunity to adopt stricter water quality standards after this week's U.S. Supreme Court decision not to review a lower court ruling allowing the Sokaogon Chippewa band to use that authority on its reservation.

The ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago gave the Sokaogon, or Mole Lake, band the power to set water quality standards on its reservation, which is downstream from the proposed Crandon zinc and copper mine.

Those standards, higher than those set by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, mean that Nicolet Minerals Co. would have to return water from the Forest County mine at the same pristine quality it was before it came into contact with the mine.

Mic Isham, vice chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Hayward, Wis., said the decision will let his tribe go forward with stricter water standards as well.

"The DNR manages resources for sport fishing and sport hunting," said Isham, who is also vice chairman of the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission. "We harvest. Under a sports system, a little pollution is OK. When you're harvesting fish and rice, you manage for no pollution."

Ken Fish, director of the Menominee tribe's treaty rights and mining impact office, said that tribe will ask for the same authority as the Sokaogon because tribal members believe they can police their water better than the DNR.

"Currently the state of Wisconsin and the DNR have a different agenda than we do," he said.

Mike Lutz, a lawyer with the DNR, said other tribes would likely apply to set their own water standards. In theory, he said, they could apply for weaker standards, "but we've never seen any indication they would do that, nor do we have a concern that they would."

Lutz said that very few reservations are downstream of significant industry, which should minimize the impact on development.

"There will be some impacts. They won't be major," he said.

Dale Alberts, president of Nicolet Minerals, said Monday the company could comply with the stricter limits.

Alberts said the company believes it can extract 55 million tons of zinc and copper, and smaller amounts of lead, silver and gold, without harming surrounding groundwater.

"We decided that we could comply with their nondegradation standard, and we intend to do so," he said.

The court of appeals had ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can allow the Sokaogon band to regulate waters on its reservation. The court case pitted the Sokaogon and the EPA against the DNR.

The EPA argued that Congress authorized that federal agency to treat the American Indian tribes the same way as states.

But the DNR said it had authority over water resources within the state. The agency also said it had higher standing because Wisconsin achieved statehood before the Sokaogon were ceded land.

The court of appeals said the Sokaogon band was a community and American Indian culture relies heavily on water re- sources. The court also said that the ore body's 1,850 acres are all owned by American Indians.

The DNR said a decision on whether the Crandon mine can proceed probably will not be made until 2004. The agency must still complete an environmental review before the decision goes to an administrative law judge.

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