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.