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Great Lakes Article:

State appeals ruling that gives tribe authority to regulate water quality

BY ROBERT IMRIE
Article courtesy of the Associated Press
November 3, 2001

WAUSAU, Wis. -- The state is appealing a federal court ruling that grants a northern Wisconsin American Indian tribe full authority to regulate water quality on its reservation downstream from a proposed underground zinc and copper mine.

"The state feels this is an issue of sovereignty," Randy Romanski, a state Department of Justice spokesman, said Monday. "The state should not give up its right to protect its waters."

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago had ruled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can allow the Sokaogon band of Lake Superior Chippewa to regulate waters on its reservation. The three-judge panel said tribal members showed the waters were essential to their survival.

The state had argued only Wisconsin officials can regulate water quality because the state owns streams and lake beds.

In its appeal filed Friday, the state asked the appeals court to reconsider its ruling and have all 11 judges decide the case, Romanski said. A decision on whether to take up the appeal could come within a month.

The tribe argues any upstream activity, including the mine proposed by Nicolet Minerals Co. near Crandon, could change the water quality on tribal lands. The tribe's Crandon office could not be reached Monday for comment.

Nicolet Minerals, a subsidiary of Australia-based BHP Ltd., is seeking state, federal and local permits to mine 55 million tons of zinc and copper ore.

Company spokesman Dale Alberts said Monday the company has been designing the mine with the tribe's higher water-quality standards in mind since 1995.

"We believe we can and will comply with the Sokaogon standards," he said. "We have to make sure we don't impact their water quality. Our scientific analysis demonstrates clearly we can do that so that they have no change to their water quality."

Opponents of the mine argue toxic chemicals from it will damage the environment, especially Swamp Creek and Rice Lake, which waters the tribe's wild-rice beds. Swamp Creek runs through the mine's property before reaching the reservation.

Mine supporters say it can operate without harming the environment and will create much-needed jobs.

The DNR is expected to release its recommendations on the project by next spring, Alberts said.

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