In a July 2009 letter, Jon Cherry, former General Manager for Kennecott’s Eagle Project, says that “Kennecott’s commitment to respecting the cultural values of American Indian communities near its projects is a function of company practice, not just statutory requirements.” Why, then, have they chosen to ignore pleas from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, other tribes, and local citizens ̶ as well as a recommendation from a state judge ̶ to move their mine portal away from the immediate vicinity of Eagle Rock, a site which is considered sacred and of great cultural significance?
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) of 1978 was created by Congress to protect and preserve for American Indians their right to express their native religions, including access to and use of sacred sites. A 1994 amendment clarifies that “the Native American religions hold certain lands or natural formations to be sacred.”
Consistent with AIRFA, Administrative Law Judge Richard Patterson ruled in August of 2009 that both Kennecott and the MDEQ “did not properly address the impact on the sacred rock outcrop known as Eagle Rock,” further stating that “the excavation and drilling in the immediate area of Eagle Rock and fencing it off will materially affect its use as a place of worship. This should in some manner be accommodated, and would best be done so by relocating the access to the mine to a location that will not interfere with that function.”
Ignoring both federal law and the judge’s recommendations, the DEQ decided that Eagle Rock did not constitute a place of worship and that Kennecott could retain its plan to blast beneath the outcrop.
Interestingly, Kennecott has applied pressure to the EPA as well as the DEQ, as evidenced in two letters dated February 19, 2009. In one letter, Kennecott tells the EPA that it isn’t necessary to complete the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) process before issuance of a draft Underground Injection Control (UIC) permit. The other letter demands that EPA set a deadline cutting off any further input from KBIC or other interested tribes on NHPA issues.
It is a great pity, but no real surprise, that Kennecott should have such a callous disregard for the sacred. After all, they are owned by Rio Tinto, the second-largest mining company in the world and one with a long history of environmental and human rights violations, particularly when it comes to indigenous peoples.