Public weighs in on mining billMADISON — The only scheduled hearing for a Republican-sponsored mining bill drew an overflow crowd who urged legislators to consider mining’s economic and environmental impacts on the state.
By: By Kevin Murphy/For the Telegram, Superior Telegram
MADISON — The only scheduled hearing for a Republican-sponsored mining bill drew an overflow crowd who urged legislators to consider mining’s economic and environmental impacts on the state.
Determined to get a law passed this spring, Senate and Assembly committees on mining, jobs and forestry met jointly Wednesday, limited testimony to two minutes per person, and legislators’ questions to two each, riling some Democrats.
“This is a kangaroo court,” State Rep. Bret Hulsey, D-Madison, said of the 12-hour proceeding.
Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams stressed economic benefits saying 2,000 people will be hired to construct a mine proposed in Ashland and Iron counties and 700 will be hired later to operate the mine and a processing plant.
The mining project would produce what Democrats have called, “the world’s largest open pit mine,” but support 5,668 long-term jobs in equipment manufacturing and other supportive industries, creating $1.2 billion in annual economic impact.
Senate and Assembly Bills 1, don’t require hiring state residents, because there aren’t people with certain expertise in the state to run a mine, Williams said. He blamed that on statutes that have kept the industry out of the state for too long.
“But a vast majority of the jobs can be filled by people in Ashland and Iron counties,” he said.
State Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, asked how the mine would prevent toxic sulfides from leaching out of waste rock and draining into the Bad River watershed.
Williams explained they would be mining an iron oxide ore body that can be reached without going into an iron sulfide ore body, which can create acid mine damage.
“It (the iron sulfide ore body) will remain where it is now,” he said.
Bad River Chippewa tribal officials cautioned legislators that mining upstream from their reservation could permanently damage their drinking water and wild rice beds they consider sacred.
“This would be catastrophic … and forever,” said Mike Wiggins Jr. Bad River’s tribal chairman.
Williams also said the company will submit thousands of pages on the mine’s operations in an environmental impact review after a bill is passed.
“We need some certainty that this will work but we can’t begin the process before you have a process,” he said.
A number of Hurley residents encouraged passage of the bill saying they remembered decades of mining there that had little adverse environmental impact.
State Rep. Nick Milroy, D-Superior, said there is no comparison between the shaft mining that occurred around Hurley until the late 1960s and the open pit mine planned near Mellen.
While waste rock tailings remain piled up in Iron County, the open pit mine will require stacking millions of tons of waste rock, which creates a huge potential for environmental damage, said Milroy.
Also, runoff from Iron County mines traveled a short distance to Lake Superior where it was diluted. However, runoff from the proposed mine could enter the Bad River watershed threatening a pristine watershed, he said.
The enormous wild rice beds near the mouth of St. Louis River disappeared after mining expanded in Minnesota’s Iron Range, which drains into the St. Louis, he said.
The 216-page bill doesn’t permit a mine but makes approval easier by adding exemptions to state groundwater and less restrictive wetlands regulations.
The bill requires the Department of Natural Resources to act on a mine construction permit within 2½ years and shifts the burden from the DNR to those objecting to the permit decision.
Rebecca Grazer, of Army Corps of Engineers, said the agency wasn’t invited to attend the hearing, called on four days notice, but said its mine permit process can take two to four years to complete.
State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, introduced an alternative bill on Tuesday, which he said doesn’t change environmental protections but streamlines the approval process.
“My goal was to write the best bill. I don’t expect the (Republicans) to adopt it as theirs but I hope they will incorporate as much of my bill as possible,” he said at a news conference.
Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, told reporters there will be some changes in the GOP mining bill and no has been date set for committee to consider it.
Republicans opposed a hearing in northern Wisconsin on the bill saying mining legislation has been “thoroughly vetted” at several hearings where hundreds have testified in the past two years.
Democrats have said the GOP bill differs from one that failed to pass last year and the Legislature should make it easier for northern residents to voice their views publically.
Cullen said he will hold a hearing in northern Wisconsin on his yet unnumbered bill saying those affected most by mining should be listened to most closely.
Unlike the GOP bill, Cullen’s calls for disbursement of 100 percent of revenue from a gross tonnage tax on mined ore within 100-miles of a mine. Local governments get 70 percent and 30 percent will be disbursed to organizations making requests to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
“Why should that money go to Madison?” he asked.
The GOP bill taxes mining’s net proceeds, which State Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Superior, said wouldn’t occur until a mine is profitable and delays payments to local government years after they had to address impacts on local services and infrastructure.
Jauch, who was out of state at a daughter’s wedding, backed Cullen’s bill as an “honest and realistic reform plan.”
“This legislative reform streamlines the process and fulfills the publicly stated goals of the Governor and (the) mining company who were seeking a workable and predictable process,” he said in a prepared statement.