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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

State Assembly Passes Controversial Mining Bill

Susan Bence
Tina Van Zile of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community addressed Marquette University students Tuesday.

Update, November 3:

Although Democrats rallied against the bill designed to lift the nearly-20 year restrictions on sulfide mining, the Republican-dominated State Assembly prevailed with a 53-38 vote. Bill sponsor Rep. Rob Hutton of Brookfield folded in amendments that include halting mining if it is legally challenged; another to help ensure mining companies pay taxes.

"That's the bill that's before you - the ordinal bill plus six amendments that were driven by DNR and environmental groups, including former DNR secretaries and fomer DNR mining experts...All told about 11 amendments that make this bill accomplish what it needs economically while strengthening its protections environmentally and financially," Hutton said.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill next Tuesday.

Original Story, November 2:

This afternoon the Wisconsin State Assembly will vote on a billdesigned to encourage mining. The proposal would put an end a stringent law passed by lawmakers almost 20 years ago.  

Nearly two dozen student and environmental organizations are cosponsoring a speaking tourthey hope will keep current law intact.

Some call it “prove it first." That's because a company would have to prove it could operate 10 years, then close for another ten, without environmental consequences.

Representative Rob Hutton of Brookfield believes it's time for the law to go. He cosponsored a bill that would make that happen, saying it creates a path for sustainability and growth.

“Aside from direct money jobs, there will be a need for highly-skilled truck drivers, road and bridge builders, rail builders as well as electricians, plumbers and carpenters…..It is time to provide economic hope for our human resources – the people and the families of northern Wisconsin,” Hutton says.

Hutton spoke at a Senate committee hearing.

Mining industry groups and companies have registered their support for the bill.

The organization Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce also backs it. Spokesman Lucas Vebber calls mining fundamental to a healthy supply chain for years to come.

“As we’re talking about the future of what energy could look like, for example. For a megawatt of wind energy you’re going to need 8,000 pounds of copper. Those materials are going to be mined; they’re going to be mined somewhere. With this legislation, they could be mined right here in Wisconsin subject to some of the stringent environmental controls in the world,” Vebber says.

While the Republican-dominated Legislature appears largely to stand behind the mining bill, Democratic critics are concerned about its eased groundwater protections and limits on public input during the permitting process.

Student groupsalong with environmental groups, including River Alliance of Wisconsin and native tribes have put together more than two dozen speaking engagements around Wisconsin.  Tina Van Zile of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community has joined in.

“I left this morning and what I did before I left was I gave my grand baby a kiss,”she says.

Earlier this week, Van Zile traveled more than 200 miles from her home in Forest County to Milwaukee to share her worries that gold and copper mines could harm the environment.

Her tribe and dozens of grassroots groups successfully fought against a proposed mine years ago.

She says she thought the moratorium on mining was here to stay.

Van Zile says the bill moving through the legislature rekindled her concerns and motivated her to join a consortium of tribes and environmental groups to speak out against the proposal – this time at Marquette University.

“We all can relate to that. We’re all going to have children hopefully and they’re going to have children. And I’m really scared what this place is going to be like when my grandchild grows up. There is no excuse why we can’t fight hard and make those calls because we have to do it for them,” Van Zile says.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
Hannah Badeau (center) was among the Marquette students who attended the program.

Marquette junior Hannah Badeau watched the mining critics' presentation and was visibly moved. She says she plans to take action.

“What I take out of it is, how do you not do something. How do you not do it? It’s just more motivation to do as much as I can,” Badeau says.

That’s exactly what tour organizers hopes to accomplish. Presentations will continue crisscrossing the state through November no matter how the State Assembly and later the Senate vote.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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