July 30, 2014

Mining bill clears the Senate

The state Senate has signed off on controversial legislation that would clear the way for a possible iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.

Democrats spent hours on Wednesday trying to amend the bill, with provisions targeting issues such as where waste rock can be dumped, how an operation would be taxed, and giving the public more power to object to proposed mines. A dozen amendments were defeated on 17-16 votes, with Senator Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) the only Republican to vote against the majority with Democrats.

Schultz, the key vote which defeated a similar bill last session, urged fellow Republicans to consider a Democratic alternative. He said they should “get it right, because with mining there are no do-overs.”

The bill is targeted at easing the permitting process for a possible open pit iron ore mine in Iron and Ashland counties. Gogebic Taconite is pursuing the project, but argues current law is too restrictive.

Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar), who represents the area around the proposed mine, said that the bill is flawed and gives way too much authority to mine operators, restricts the power of the DNR to regulate the industry, and weakens key environmental protections for air and water quality. The Poplar Democrat also warned that the bill simply sets the state up for a never ending stream of lawsuits from native American tribes living in the Bad River watershed, which could be impacted by the proposed mine.

Republicans contend the bill does not lower air and water quality standards, also noting that the US Army Corps of Engineers and the DNR will not permit a mine if it actually poses a threat to the environment or public health. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) says it “opens the door for thousands of jobs while protecting our natural resources.”

The bill passed on a 17-16 vote and now heads to the state Assembly, which could vote on it next week.