April 18, 2014

Mine hearing draws hundreds in West Allis

As the state Assembly considers a bill that would streamline the permit approval process for mining operations, hundreds turn out at a public hearing on the proposal in West Allis.

The legislation, which was first released last week, is designed to make it easier for Gogebic Taconite to gain approval for an open pit iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron Counties. Lawmakers heard hours of testimony on the bill Wednesday from groups arguing it would remove key environmental protections in the region. A number of businesses with ties to the mining industry also testified that the changes could create thousands of jobs across Wisconsin.

Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins says the bill has so many pieces “that represent a giveaway of the natural resources of the state of Wisconsin” that will come to settle on his people. Wiggins says it’s “completely unacceptable” to increase the chances of groundwater and environmental contamination by reducing the regulations on mining operations.

Shirl Labarre, a business owner from Hayward, says a proposed iron ore mine in her area would create jobs that are badly needed. Labarre told lawmakers about her son leaving for college next year, and how she does not believe he will come back to the area because there are no job prospects. However, she says “he might be able to come back as a mining engineer” if the iron ore mine becomes a reality.

Wisconsin Wildlife Federation executive director George Meyer, a former state DNR secretary, argued the bill removes key safeguards from the mining approval process. Meyer says “mining is the most complex and potentially damaging environmental permit” the agency issues, and the bill would reduce the ability of the DNR to fully review applications.

The legislation sets a two year timetable for the approval of ferrous mining permits, while also eliminating the contested case hearing process that has allowed groups to slow down previous mining projects. Republicans say the changes are needed to give mining companies more certainty about the process.

AUDIO: Andrew Beckett reports (1:15)