Wisconsin Senate approves mining bill as debate stretches onThe state Senate has approved a Republican bill that would dramatically overhaul Wisconsin'smining regulations.
By: Todd Richmond, Associated Press, Superior Telegram
MADISON - The state Senate has approved a Republican bill that would dramatically overhaul Wisconsin'smining regulations.
The measure is designed to ease the regulatory path for Gogebic Taconite's plans for a huge iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior.
The GOP contends the mine would create hundreds of jobs. Minority Democrats counter the bill would relax environmental protections and open the door to pollution that would devastate the pristine region.
The Republican-controlled Senate approved the bill 17-16 Wednesday after nearly nine hours of debate. The state Assembly is expected to take the bill up next week. Republicans control that house as well. Approval there would send the measure on to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.
Republicans have been working for nearly two years to help Gogebic Taconite dig an open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. Their bill would make sweeping changes to the state's mining rules to clear the company's regulatory path.
Republicans insist the measure would help the company create hundreds of jobs at the mine and pave the way for thousands more around the state. Walker, eager to deliver on job creation promises, wants to get the bill on his desk.
Democrats and conservationists, though, maintain the company's job promises are exaggerated. They say the bill loosens environmental protections and would allow the mine to pollute one of the state's last pristine areas.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday sounded the same themes they have for months.
They complained the bill would clear the way for mining waste to contaminate area waters and rob local governments of mining tax revenue. They also ripped Republicans for not holding a public hearing in Northwestern Wisconsin, blasted the measure as a sweetheart deal for Gogebic Taconite and predicted it would end up in court.
"The company's intent can be summed up in five words: Give us what we want," said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, whose district includes the mine site. "Our job is not to be Santa Claus for a mining company."
The bill's author, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, insisted the measure doesn't compromise the environment. He pointed out mining issues have been thoroughly vetted in a dozen hearings. As the debate neared five hours, Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, stood up and accused Democrats of launching a filibuster. He said the state Department of Natural Resources, which would grant any state mining permits, never would allow major environmental damage.
"What we're trying to do is jump-start the economy," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said after the debate stretched into its seventh hour. "We're at a point now where we should be looking at each and every opportunity we have and this is right in front of us … I have no idea why we're trying to chase it away."
Under the bill, the DNR would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision. Right now, the process is open-ended. The public couldn't challenge a DNR permit decision until after it was made, and damage a mine might cause to wetlands would be presumed necessary. Applicants would have to submit a plan to compensate for damage, however, which would include a proposal for creating up to an acre and a half of new wetlands for every acre impacted.
A mining company's permit application fees would be capped at $2 million plus the DNR's expenses for delineating wetland boundaries. Tax on a company's revenue would be split 60-40 between local governments and the state. Current law imposes no cap on application fees and calls for all taxes on revenue to go to local governments to offset mining impacts.
The bill also exempts mining companies from the state's $7 per ton recycling fee on waste materials. That exemption could result in a potential loss of up to $171 million annually the state would collect from Gogebic Taconite for environmental protection programs under current law, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.