published April 3, 2013

Northland College Students and Faculty Assess Pre-mining Environmental Baselines

Glenn Odenbrett, NCSCE

After a highly contentious debate and party-line vote in the Wisconsin legislature last month, Governor Scott Walker signed a bill that would permit mining in an Iron County area that includes the headwaters of the Bad River, a major tributary of Lake Superior. Proponents of the project claim it will bring hundreds of jobs to a region of the state plagued by chronic unemployment and to producers of mining equipment elsewhere in the state. Opponents, including leaders of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation downstream from the proposed mining project, warn of the inevitable pollution of the area's waterways and degradation of its air quality. In the case of the Chippewa, such pollution could constitute a violation of the tribe's water quality standards for the Bad River, which have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in accordance with the Clean Water Act. The tribe has threatened a legal challenge to the legislation, which could delay the beginning of mining activities for years, if not halt them altogether.

Quietly, in order to ensure that the decision-making and environmental impact determination processes are based on sound science, students and faculty from Northland College in Ashland have been gathering baseline data on local water and air quality both in and around the reservation, in partnership with citizen science efforts of the non-profit Bad River Watershed Association. They are doing so primarily through a four-week intensive May term course called the Chemistry of Natural Waters, taught by Professor Sharon Anthony with the support of undergraduate stewardship liaisons funded by NCSCE's GLISTEN (the Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship Through Education Network) project. Students from this course have been performing yearly assessments of the water quality of Bad River headwaters such as the Marengo River since 2010, Perhaps more important to this article, for the past two years they have also been collecting water quality data up in the proposed mining area (in areas upstream of the mine, directly within the mining area, and downstream) in order to help get baseline data on temperature, dissolved oxygen, chloride, conductivity, pH, alkalinity, and turbidity. In addition, the students helped verify the quality of the data collection methods of the Association's citizen scientists.

As the prospect of mining in the region increased, some students from the Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate course at Northland, along with undergraduate stewardship liaison William Mokry, also collected and analyzed additional baseline data on air quality in the reservation, so that appropriate action could be taken if air quality levels deteriorate in the future.

Undergraduate stewardship liaisons such as Angelena Koosman and Alex Bruns have coordinated the monitoring efforts of their peers, while sustaining monitoring activities during the intervening months. Angelena has said that the "extensive amount of water quality monitoring" and "published baseline water quality report" provided to the Association would not have been possible without their efforts.

For her part, Professor Anthony has emphasized the valuable learning gains of her students as a result of their hands-on engagement with a contested civic issue:

"Developing excellent laboratory skills is one of the main learning objectives of the Chemistry of Natural Waters course. For the most part, students have been very meticulous in the lab and I have been very impressed with the laboratory skills they have developed. I think their attention to detail can be attributed to the fact that we are collecting data that matters in the most pressing current issue of our region-mining."

Whatever the outcome of the mining controversy in northern Wisconsin, Northland College's faculty and students have ensured that community members will have a body of actionable data with which they can participate as scientifically informed citizens in determining the future economic development and environmental protection of their region of the state.

More information about the Chemistry of Natural Waters is available at here.