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Advocates Hope Proposed Bill Brings Job-Creating Mines To Northern Wisconsin

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
While proponents says the bill will balance the economy and the environment, some worry about impacts to water resources.

A Senate committee is considering a bill designed to end Wisconsin's so-called mining moratorium. For the last two decades companies hoping to start a mine had to prove they had already run a non-polluting mine. Bill advocates say the new law would make it easier for companies to establish new mines in the state.

The Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Forestry and Mining took the bill to Ladysmith Thursday for a public hearing. The northern Wisconsin community was home to a copper and gold mine from 1993 to 1997.

Some people waited more than nine hours to testify yesterday. For some, economic development is at odds with environmental protection.

But hydrologist Steve Donahue said the two can coexist. He pointed to the Ladysmith mine and said the operation had a clean environmental record.

“It received extensive regulatory oversight but operated in a water-rich environment on the banks of the Flambeau River, was reclaimed, was and is protective of the Flambeau River and is a great success. It is an engineering achievement and should be celebrated by the state by rescinding the moratorium,” Donahue said.

But environmental sociologist Al Gedicks could not have disagreed more. He gaves the company that ran the mine marks for trying to control pollution.

Gedicks said it's impossible to mine in northern Wisconsin without impacting the surroundings. “Under the most ideal circumstances, where they did not have massive piles of tailings, which is the most toxic residue from the mining process, they still, under the most exemplary conditions, did not prevent pollution. If they couldn’t do it here so how can you possibly make an argument that they’re going to do it a better job when they’re facing much more unsurpassable problems at those other sites."

Another expert who testified focused on the opportunity awaiting mine developers -- and the communities where mines are established. Roger Morton calls himself an economic geologist and told the committee northern Wisconsin is sitting on a treasure chest.

He believes the region could sustain up to fifteen mining operations. “You’re going to have an initial investment – by initial investment I mean investment by exploration companies who come and do the geology, do the drilling. That’s just going to be $1 billion US dollars."

Morton estimates the projects could generate more than 40,000 jobs. Spooner resident Casey Aronson said he would be eager to take one of them. He’s a heavy equipment operator.

“Not only give us a place to work but give our children an opportunity to work and live in northern Wisconsin rather than seeing them watching them leave to seek employment elsewhere. I love the great outdoors. I too want to preserve and protect our land, but I believe that we can safely and responsibly mine our land without harming our environment,” Aronson said.

The promise made by the bill’s authors - to strike a balance between the economy and the environment - raised red flags for Allison Werner with the River Alliance of Wisconsin.

She said she read the bill, and was troubled by its relaxed rules for wetland protection and high capacity wells.

Werner said the changes could have long-term impacts on neighboring streams and private wells:

“Are they providing bottled water to the homeowner to replace what’s happened to that well? Some of the places we’ve seen on the map where potential mines could come in are high agricultural areas, what happens if there’s not enough water for those farmers for their cows? It’s also vague with the replacement of water, it says water similar to what’s there has to be provided. It doesn’t say from where. So are we taking from one stream to another; are we transferring invasive species potentially? What harm could be be causing to groundwater and our surface waters by allowing this new condition to high capacity wells?"

Others who spoke out against the proposal argue that their lifestyle and culture would be negatively impacted by the creation of more mines.

Lawrence Matt of the Forest County Potawatomi tribe held his young son in his arms as he expressed his concerns: “We’ve got to keep it pristine for him and for the next generations..I want to take him hunting, take him fishing. I want to eat those fish. I don’t want to get to a day when my son can’t eat the food – because we can’t eat money."

Committee chair and bill author Senator Tom Tiffany assured critics that if the Legislature passes the bill that wouldn't mean that all prospective mines would get the green light. That's because local governments could reject mining proposals by refusing to approve zoning.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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