Senate panel considers mining permit optionsThe mining permit approval process can be streamlined by having a decision-maker appointed from the onset, the State Senate Select Committee on Mining was told Tuesday.
By: By Kevin Murphy, For the Superior Telegram, Superior Telegram
MADISON — The mining permit approval process can be streamlined by having a decision-maker appointed from the onset, the State Senate Select Committee on Mining was told Tuesday.
The committee began the first of three scheduled hearings in the next seven days to develop new metallic mining legislation by learning how current mining regulations developed and how to keep the influence of personalities and politics out of the decision process.
Thomas Evans, of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, told the committee that the Department of Natural Resources should appoint an independent administrative law judge when a mine applicant files a Notice of Intent.
The notice provides the starting point for an applicant’s discussions with local officials, alerts state regulators to the scope and nature of the mining operation and provides a description of reclamation plan.
It also triggers a mandatory public hearing to review the data that will be collected to support the eventual mining permit application and identify what data collected prior to the Notice of Intent can be included in the application.
A number of issues arise regarding the adequacy of information the applicant provides the DNR during the approval process can be resolved by an ALJ said Evans. While mining officials have complained to Evans that approval process “doesn’t end” a decision maker can settle those differences and allow “people to move on or move out,” he said.
“Otherwise, companies have no certainty in how such decisions would eventually affect the outcome. They would just continue to invest without knowing what their chances (of success) are,” Evans said.
Evans said Michigan uses an ALJ to provide “off ramps” to stop the process, resolve differences and allow the applicant to determine if it’s economically feasible to continue to pursue the project.
State Senator Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, said having information disputes resolved earlier in the process is important to the applicant which otherwise risks having their application subsequently rejected by the DNR.
“There are just so many opportunities to get it wrong in this process. Companies want a chance at a reasonable timeframe in which the decision is made,” he said.
When asked, Evans said a mining company can spend two years studying the impact their proposal would have on area water resources and gathering other data before filing the intent. State and federal regulators realistically need three to four years to act on the request, he said.
During that time an environmental assessment and environmental impact statements have developed by the DNR from the applicant’s information and a host of other permits are pursued included waste rock and water handling, and site reclamation.
The applicant pays the cost of obtaining the information and regulations can cap the applicant’s maximum expense in developing a permit application.
The ALJ would preside over the master hearing where evidence supporting a mining permit application would be presented and subject to cross examination. A public comment period would follow before the ALJ presents his recommendation to the DNR Secretary for a decision, which can be challenged in court.
Mining companies will pursue a project as long as they project it can return more on their investment than other available opportunities. Dragging out a decision, an unstable regulatory climate, the wrong personalities in key positions and divisive politics will lower those projections to where the company will look elsewhere, Evans said.
The Democrat-controlled Senate established the mining committee this summer after a bill that would have limited the approval process to about one year died in the Senate in June.
Before the bill died, Florida-based Gogebic Taconite (G-Tac) said the state’s lengthy regulatory process caused it to abandon plans to invest $1.5 billion in a mine and processing plant to extract iron ore from the Penokee Hills in across Ashland and Iron counties.
As emotional as mining decisions have been, and as irreconcilable the differences may seem, decisions are still made, he said.
“But at the heart of the process must be an independent review by someone not ruled by jobs along or environmental preservation,” he said.
Speakers from the DNR and U.S.Army Corps of Engineers were also scheduled to address the committee Tuesday.
The committee has hearings scheduled for Thursday and Sept. 25.