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Mining Back on Fast Track

K Klein

There will be a flurry of activity at the state Capitol this week – and mining legislation is the topic of discussion.

GOP leaders will hold a public hearing, but not before a Democratic senator reveals a mining bill of his own.

A piece of land just south of Lake Superior – rich not only in streams and wetlands, but also in iron ore, is propelling the debate.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence looks at the debate which seems to be accelerating at a furious pace.

Governor Scott Walker laid the foundation in his State of the State address just one week ago.

“One of the best ways we can show the people of Wisconsin that their state government is focused on jobs is to pass a bill that streamlines the process for safe and environmentally sound mining.”

A matter of hours passed before Senator Tom Tiffany and other GOP leaders unveiled legislation they promise will fulfill the Governor’s criteria. Tiffany says there was no reason to delay.

“I don’t think that it’s a surprise to anyone that this bill is coming forth, in fact I was very clear in early December after the elections in November that we were going to bring the bill forth,” Tiffany says.

And now, a public hearing before Senate and Assembly committees tasked to handle mining issues is scheduled for Wednesday at the Capitol.

It’s the only one planned for what critics deem a sweeping overhaul of mining regulations.

Tiffany says the sole hearing is plenty, given the Legislature’s extensive probe into mining regulations during the last session.

The new bill is based on failed legislation, which would have paved the way for Florida-based Gogebic Taconite to develop a mine.

Republicans hope to lure back the company:

“There have been, I think, like nine or ten hearing around the state of Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to Platteville up to Mellen and Hurley; so this issue has had a lot of vetting,” Tiffany says.

Although he’s already conveyed his support to Governor Walker, Kelly Klein plans to be at the Capitol to testify in favor of the mining bill.

Klein heads Iron County’s resource development association. It – along with Ashland County – straddle the site of the proposed Penokee iron ore mine.

“We’ve got a copy of the bill; we’ve also read the legislative council’s analysis of it. We’re not alarmed by anything in it,” Klein says.

Klein says he’s confident the bill reflects solid environmental protections standards.

“When you talk about measuring water quality and air quality – those metrics stay the same; and we’re happy to see that. We don’t want to ruin anything here, but yet we want to make the business climate friendly,” Klein says.

As positive Klein is that mining can be achieved safely, Ashland County resident Pete Rasmussen is doubtful.

“If you say we can protect the environment and put in a huge strip mine in the same sentence, I think you’re starting from a false premise,” Rasmussen says.

He’s part of a group called Penokee Hills Education Project that sprang out of environmental concern, when the previous mining bill was being debated.

“I just don’t think the people will stand for it; the people will not will stand for being continuously ignored; the people who are being most affected up north are being ignored by the legislature; all of the drainage from this mine site would go to Ashland County, there hasn’t been a single hearing in Ashland County and to pass a law the affects the people up here and then have hearings five hours away and then to think that they are just going to proceed on the project that that bill basically green lights,” Rasmussen says.

Republican Senator Tiffany says he’s open to compromise on certain aspects of the bill.

A Democratic state Senator says he plans to test Tiffany’s willingness to consider modifications.

Last summer, when Democrats briefly controlled the Senate, Tim Cullen formed a committee, and attempted to find bipartisan consensus on a mining proposal.

Tuesday he plans to introduce his own version of a mining bill, based on the committee’s work.

He says he hopes it spurs a revision in the GOP version’s water quality standards.

Credit K Klein
Montreal River flows past tailing piles from former Montreal mine in Iron County.

“The fundamental reality I think everyone needs to acknowledge is that there’s an awful lot of water in the Penokee Hills; and my bill says you can get a permit to permit to mine there, but you can’t put the waste in the water and the Republican bill, which is having a hearing on Wednesday, says that you can put the waste in the water; so that’s the fundamental difference, that I would have to see changed for me to support that bill,” Cullen says.

While Republicans, who hold the majority in the Legislature, only plan to hold Wednesday’s hearing in Madison, Cullen says he plans to take his bill to northern Wisconsin for public input.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.