MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans moved closer Wednesday to passing a sweeping overhaul of the state’s mining regulations, pushing the proposal through a pair of committees and setting up a vote before the Legislature’s budget panel.
The legislation is designed to help Gogebic Taconite open a massive iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin. Republicans insist the bill will ease the company’s regulatory path and help it create hundreds of jobs. Democrats and environmentalists have painted the measure as a corporate give-away, insisting the bill weakens environmental protections and the company’s job creation promises are wildly exaggerated.
Republicans on the Senate and Assembly mining committees made identical revisions to the bill Wednesday they said were designed to allay fears about pollution. Democrats lamented the changes as insubstantial, but it didn’t matter. The GOP controls both the Senate and the Assembly, which means the party controls every committee. The Senate panel passed it on a 3-2 party line vote; the Assembly committee followed suit on a 10-6 party line vote.
“This bill balances the economy and the environment,” said Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, one of the bill’s chief sponsors and chairman of the Senate committee. “We can do this.”
The bill goes next to the Joint Finance Committee. That likely will be the measure’s last stop before it comes to the Senate and Assembly floors. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has said he wants to vote on the measure by early next month.
Republicans have been trying to persuade Gogebic Taconite to open the mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior for more than a year. The company has pledged the project would create hundreds of jobs in the economically depressed region and hundreds more for heavy equipment makers throughout the state. But company officials want the Legislature to streamline the state’s mining regulations before they move forward.
Republicans introduced a bill in January. Under the proposal, the state Department of Natural Resources would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision, the public couldn’t challenge a DNR permitting decision until after the agency made it and any damage a mine causes to wetlands would be presumed necessary. A prohibition on mining operations filling lake beds would be eliminated. So would a prohibition on locating mining waste near lakes, ponds and rivers.
Democrats and conservationists say the measure clears the way for pollution that would devastate one of the state’s last pristine areas.
Republicans on both committees tried to assuage those concerns by making identical changes in the bill, including limiting the size of the area around a mine where groundwater standards wouldn’t apply; laying out more stringent testing on waste rock to determine the likelihood of pollutants leaching from it; requiring long-term impact models to cover 250 years rather than 100 years; prohibiting the DNR from issuing exemptions to the law’s requirements if they would have significant adverse effects on the environment outside the mining site; and blocking mine applicants from filling in navigable waters such as trout streams and lakes.
Democrats on both committees still said the bill was moving too quickly. They continued to argue the measure would damage the environment and wouldn’t create the promised jobs for years to come, if at all.
“This place should be a national park, not the largest strip mine in the country,” Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, a member of the Assembly committee, said during that panel’s hearing.
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, a Senate committee member whose district would include the mine, singlehandedly extended that meeting by hours, complaining about everything from the lack of a public hearing in northern Wisconsin to what he said were the bill’s glaring legal vulnerabilities.
“It’s still a bad bill,” Jauch said. “It injects legal curiosity and it invites legal challenges and that’s contrary to the whole idea of streamlining this. We will look like a state that’s anti-mining. There will be litigation after litigation after litigation.”
Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, a member of the Assembly committee, said the mine wouldn’t be an “economic panacea,” but the changes offered in the bill would set a new tone for how Wisconsin handles potential new projects like the mine.
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, a Senate committee member, said she trusts the DNR wouldn’t allow the mine to ruin the area.
“We’ve laid out a really good map in terms of due diligence,” she said. “We have to balance this good (environmental) protection … with the opportunity of getting economic developing and growing jobs in northwestern Wisconsin.”