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Bad River Seeks Pristine Air Classification

Tribal Leaders Say Federal Status Change Would Add Leverage With Mining Companies

USFWSmidwest (CC-BY)

A northern Wisconsin tribe is seeking a change to its air quality status under federal law.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Air Management Program Director Bart Sponseller said the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is applying for Class I air status under the Clean Air Act.

“This is actually a formal process to redesignate the area from what’s considered to be Class II, which is just like the rest of the country, to Class I, which is more pristine air quality,” Sponseller said.

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Sponseller said a change in status may allow the tribe to have a say on air permits that could be given to major polluters in the area. Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins said Gogebic Taconite’s proposed iron mine played a role in their application.

“Air quality impacts from taconite mining are real. Class I air standards just give us a lever to vet public health impacts and to give us a way to at least try and protect ourselves,” said Wiggins.

GTAC did not immediately return a request for comment. According to an EPA spokeswoman, Bad River would be one of two tribes in the state and one of six nationwide with Class I status if approved.

Bad River is applying for Class I air status under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program. The goal of the program is to protect air quality and allow for growth that’s in line with the region’s air quality. The program allows areas like national parks, wilderness areas or other areas of special significance to redesignate their air status.

The DNR’s Sponseller said Bad River notified states, tribes and federal land managers that would be affected by a change in status last year. He said Bad River will begin consulting with state and local governments on March 17.

“Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan will be meeting with the Bad River Band in addition to, I believe, some other local units of government,” he said.

Sponseller said the tribe has prepared a report detailing the economic, environmental, health and social effects a change in status may have on the Bad River Band.

The tribe sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 about its intention to request a change in status for tribal lands, according to EPA spokeswoman Phillippa Cannon. Cannon said the EPA has not yet received a formal request for redesignation.

Public hearings on the tribe’s application will be held next month. The comment period ends May 1. Public hearings will be held on March 18 at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland and on March 19 at the Bad River Housing Authority. Both meetings will run from 5p.m. to 8 p.m.