Mining company gets special treatmentMADISON — A bill that would close public access to areas around a proposed iron ore mining site in Ashland and Iron counties was criticized Wednesday by Northwoods lawmakers as inequitable and unnecessary.
By: Kevin Murphy/For the Superior Telegram, Superior Telegram
MADISON — A bill that would close public access to areas around a proposed iron ore mining site in Ashland and Iron counties was criticized Wednesday by Northwoods lawmakers as inequitable and unnecessary.
State Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, said the bill extends too owners of land that would be mined benefits that are withheld from the rest of the state’s 33,000 property owners enrolled in the managed forest land program.
Specifically, the senate bill only allows a RGGS Land & Minerals, Ltd. owner of the 3,500 acres Gogebic Taconite may mine, to close public access to its property and then reopen it later without having to paying back taxes for local governments, said Jauch. Other managed forestland property owners don’t have that flexibility and can only withdraw from the program and pay back taxes if they want to keep the public off their property.
“Why should one owner have this benefit that is denied to the other thousands of other property owners in the managed forest land program,” Jauch asked.
Under current law, RGGS would pay up to $500,000 if it withdraws all 3,500 acres from the program at once, according to published reports.
The bill’s author State Sen. Thomas Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said the flexibility keeps the acreage in the program longer than under current law.
Under the bill the land designated for mining activity would be closed to the public from the time a bulk sampling is approved to when a decision on a mining permit is made.
Different areas within the 3,500 acres could be opened and closed leading up to the permit decision in a joint agreement between the DNR and the landowner.
The DNR would post which areas are close to the public but State Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, said that would be difficult to track. Others said since there is no requirement to post closed areas, people could unintentionally wander into them, while hiking or hunting.
Tiffany said he introduced the bill to counter “eco-terrorism” including a June 11 incident in which protesters shouted obscenities and threats at workers at a drill site, stole a camera, and blocked roads into the site to delay response by law enforcement.
GTAC hired a security firm that wasn’t permitted to work in the state and Tiffany began meeting with mining company officials on how to protect their workers.
“The (protesters) said they would be back with more people ... and I take them at their word,” said Tiffany who also chairs the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue.
Jauch called the bill unnecessary since there have been no other incidents at work sites since June and there are laws that prohibit and punish trespassing and disorderly conduct.
Tiffany said the violent protesters have and could continue to misuse the forestland program to gain access to the mining site by posing as benign hikers, then damaging mining equipment and interfering with mineworkers.
“They’ve said they want to bleed the company,” Tiffany said.
Jauch has sought legislative support for a mineworker safety bill that would establish 300-foot zones around mining activity so work could proceed and people could continue to enjoy this area of the Penokee Hills.
He asked Tiffany why he wrote the bill to potentially exclude the entire mine site from public access when mining activity would take place on a much smaller footprint.
The area will be crisscrossed by officials from many agencies when gathering data during the mine permit application and enforcing the 300-foot safety zones would be difficult, said Tiffany.
Bewley asked the committee to postpone consideration of SB 278 in order to allow experts and northern residents to testify on impact of the proposed exemption to the MFL law.
“There is no reason to rush this,” Bewley said, “There is no Assembly companion bill, the Senate doesn’t meet for two weeks, and most importantly, there is no realistic way that residents of the 74th (Bewley’s) District could get to Madison today.”
She also noted the Wisconsin Council on Forestry, which is typically consulted on managed forestland matters, meets next week and has not taken on position on the bill Tiffany introduced Friday afternoon.
More time would produce bipartisan legislation that reflects more of Northern Wisconsin’s interests, she said.
After listening to two hours of testimony, Bewley said she was convinced backers of the bill don’t understand the legislation and shouldn’t expect citizens to able to even answer: “Can I go hunt deer there today?” if the bill passes.