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Mining Hearing Draws Crowds and Continued Debate

Susan Bence

No one expected Wednesday’s hearing on a mining bill at the state Capitol to be a short or calm affair, and it was not.

Dozens of people squeezed into the chamber for what is slated to be the only public hearing on a GOP propelled piece of legislation.

It’s designed to push a proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin into a living, breathing job creator.WUWM Environmental Reporter monitored the proceedings during which legislators from both sides of the political aisle batted barbs.

Republicans burst right out of the gate – touting the benefits of a huge iron-ore mine. Representative Mark Honadel of South Milwaukee coauthored the Assembly version of the bill.

“Not often does government have the ability to create and sustain good jobs in Wisconsin but this bill does exactly that,” Honadel says. He spoke of positions paying upwards of $50,000 plus benefits, particularly in the job-starved region closest to the proposed mine.

“Let’s think about that for a minute 700 jobs up in north woods also provide what I call the ancillary jobs in southeast Wisconsin,” Honadel says.

Fellow GOP Assemblyman Jeff Stone of Greendale was among the legislators hungry for details to be shared, not only on jobs, but also on the environmental impact of a mine. “You can’t fill in a trout stream or something like that under this proposal can you? Can you explain,” Stone says.

Bill coauthor Representative Jeff Suder jumped in to respond. “Thank you Representative Stone. The answer to that question is no, you cannot fill any trout stream,” Suder says. Suder added that neither the Assembly nor Senate mining bill tampers with government standards for air quality or ground water.

”They do not change any safe water drinking standards; the bills do not change any effluent limitations. They also, both bills are subject to the Great Lakes Water Compact, they are also subject to the public trust doctrine. It’s incredibly important to remember that; these are facts,” Suder says.

The Public Trust Doctrine requires the state to protect navigable water for the public use and enjoyment.

Democratic Senator Robert Jauch didn’t let his daughter’s wedding in Hawaii stop him from phoning in a question. He’s been butting heads with GOP leaders for months, including over the issue of whether a mining company should be allowed to dump material in nearby waterways, if it creates new ones in other parts of the state.

“There is a provision in this bill, I don’t have it in front of me that allows for filling in of navigable waterways and mitigating it elsewhere. Number one, has the Department of Natural Resources ever allowed for a filling in of navigable waters, that could be rivers and streams and ponds and then mitigate that elsewhere?” Jauch asks.

It took a bit of long distance pressure, before DNR Watershed Management Director Russ Rasmussen responded. “I guess um, from just a standard mitigation concept, not, but we have.....” Rasmussen says.

“You’ve allowed the rerouting of a stream for a project, but not allowing them to mitigate it in some other stream somewhere else.” Jauch adds.

“That’s correct,” Rasmussen says.

“Which is a significant, new change in environmental policy,” Jauch says. Jauch called the measure a lawsuit waiting to happen; and turned to legislative council for an opinion. “This is a new procedure; it’s a new policy and therefore it’s untested under the Public Trust Doctrine.”

Jauch also added to the chorus criticizing the hearing’s location – in Madison. He represents Ashland County – which – along with neighboring Iron County would absorb a mine’s impact – positive and negative. Jauch argued that the hearing should have occurred at the site.

Mining committee co-chair Republican Senator Tom Tiffany kept his cool throughout the fire of concerns and questions.

“This issue has been thoroughly vetted and it’s continuing to be vetted and we would be happy to hear any comments that people have after this hearing if they want to suggest changes to this piece of legislation,” Tiffany says.

As the long series of questions and answers continued, Tiffany allowed an Iron County resident to push ahead in line.

Rhonda Olkonen was among those who had a bus to catch to get back to her home and family in Hurley. She told the crowd she’s home alone with her two teenagers, because her husband took a job at an oil field in North Dakota. Olkonen says there were no job prospects locally.

“He comes home every four to six weeks. He has the skills to work in the mine; he’s a directional driller. We need jobs up north; not for the good old days but for the families that are there now,” Olkonen says.

As hours of testimony unfolded, comments returned over and over to Wisconsin’s rich mining history. Other residents said the Penokee region now being considered, has a completely different geology and environment; one that a mine could irreparably harm.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.