Advertisement

You will be redirected to the page you want to view in  seconds.

Update: State Assembly continues to debate mining legislation

3:14 PM, Mar. 7, 2013  |  Comments
  • Filed Under

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republicans began their final push Thursday to ease the regulatory path for a new iron mine near Lake Superior in northwestern Wisconsin, sending a polarizing bill to the state Assembly floor for one last vote with promises it would spur job growth in the impoverished area.

Democrats railed against the plan for hours but were powerless to stop it. Republicans hold a comfortable 59-39 majority in the chamber and they planned to vote by early Thursday evening.

The bill passed the Senate last week by one vote and once it clears the Assembly it will head to Republican Gov. Scott Walker for his signature. Walker has touted the measure as his key job creation plan and is expected to sign it into law early next week.

"Mining is a part of what we do and so is manufacturing," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington said as debate on the Assembly floor began, pointing out a miner is on the state flag and Wisconsin's Badger State nickname derives from the state's mining history.

At a news conference before the debate started, Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, called the measure "perhaps the most important jobs bill we've seen in a great long while." He predicted the mine could open within three or four years. Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, the bill's lead sponsor, said opening the mine also would boost southeast Wisconsin companies that build mining equipment such as Caterpillar and Joy Global.

"These are Wisconsin jobs. They're not political jobs. They're Wisconsin jobs," he said.

But Democrats maintain the environmental risks are too great and predicted jobs would not materialize as Republicans have promised given the expected legal challenges from environmental groups and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

"What has gone so wrong here that you are so willing to change Wisconsin law?" Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said. "You are making a huge mistake."

Republicans have been working for nearly two years to ease the way for Gogebic Taconite to dig a miles-long, open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. Iron mining was once the impoverished area's economic lifeblood, but the last mine closed in the 1960s and the region has been limping along on tourism and timber ever since.

Wisconsin's business lobby insists the mine would create hundreds of jobs in the area and thousands more among heavy equipment manufacturers elsewhere in the state. But company officials have refused to move forward until lawmakers ease their regulatory path.

Seizing on the chance to deliver on job creation promises, Republicans introduced legislation in late 2011 that would have made sweeping changes to the state's mining regulations. Republicans insisted the bill creates the regulatory certainty Gogebic Taconite wants, but environmentalists were outraged at a proposal they felt loosened environmental standards and opened the door to pollution.

The proposal failed by one vote in the state Senate a year ago this month after moderate Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center voted with Democrats against it. Voters handed the GOP a two-person majority in the Senate in November, making Schultz's vote irrelevant. Republicans reintroduced the bill in January and the Senate passed it by one vote last week.

Under the plan, the Department of Natural Resources would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision. Currently, the agency faces no hard deadline. The public couldn't challenge a DNR permit decision until after it has been made.

The bill also would create a presumption that damage to wetlands is necessary. Applicants would have to submit a plan to compensate for wetlands damage, including a proposal to create up to an acre and a half of new wetlands for every acre impacted, but Democrats contend such mitigation projects rarely work.

A mining company's permit application fees would be capped at $2 million plus DNR wetland mapping expenses. 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 funnels 100 percent of revenue taxes 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, sparing Gogebic Taconite from pay the state an estimated $171 million annually for environmental protection programs.

Rep. Mary Williams, R-Medford, said she had confidence in the state DNR that the environment would not be harmed.

"We're hoping for the best in this," she said.

Republican leaders have acknowledged environmentalists likely will sue to block the bill. The Bad River tribe especially could pose formidable legal challenges.

The tribe's reservation lies just north of the mine site, where the Bad River empties into Lake Superior. The band fears run-off from mine waste will poison the watershed with sulfuric acid and sulfates. As a sovereign nation, the tribe can ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the reservation's own water quality standards if a mining permit doesn't meet them. Under a federal treaty signed in 1837, the state must consult the tribe about any actions that affect its hunting and fishing rights; tribal leaders have repeatedly complained they've been left out of mining discussions.

___

Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.

What's your take on the Packers Family Night change?

Retrieving results.
Watching practice is fine.(Your vote)
15%
576 votes
I'd rather watch a scrimmage.(Your vote)
23%
856 votes
I don't want to pay to watch practice.(Your vote)
27%
1018 votes
It doesn't matter to me.(Your vote)
34%
1272 votes

Catch up on the latest in our pregame show every game day.

Football fans

If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

Special Reports

ORDER YOURS

Football fans

If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

Special Reports