As the New Year begins, one of the biggest issues facing legislators at the state Capitol in Madison is a bill designed to boost a proposed iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin.
Gogebic Taconite wants to dig an iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. Supporters of the project say the mine will provide a major boost to the state’s economy and will create an estimated 3,000 construction jobs, 700 direct jobs and 2,000 related jobs.
Environmentalists and tribal leaders, though, worry the mine will contaminate Wisconsin’s Northwoods, threatening the region’s natural resources and its tourism economy. Gogebic Taconite says the approval process for iron ore mines in the state is too rigorous and says that legislation is needed to reform the process. Otherwise, its project will not move forward.
In December, after months of discussion behind the scenes, Assembly Republicans introduced a bill to ease the restrictions for acquiring state iron mining permits. State Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) is one of the bill’s leading supporters.
“(The bill is needed because) we’ve regulated and litigated mining right out of existence in our state,” Honadel said.
Wisconsin’s economy was based on mining, manufacturing and agriculture about a century ago, a grouping Honadel calls the state’s “trifecta of jobs.” However, mining has been on the decline over the last several decades.
“That’s our missing link. Why did mining go away?” Honadel asked.
The bill upholds that for every acre of wetlands disturbed, the mining company would have to mitigate an acre and a half of wetlands elsewhere in Wisconsin. The intention is not to harm the environment, Honadel said.
“We have to continue to mine it, make it and milk it,” he said. “If we miss this opportunity, we may not see this again for 40 years.”
Rep. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) and Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) held an unofficial public hearing on the mine issue in Ashland on Jan. 7 to hear from residents who will be affected by the mine’s potential environmental and economic impacts. Democrats criticized Republicans for holding a public hearing on the project in December at State Fair Park in West Allis, nearly 350 miles from the mine site..
According to Wispolitics.com, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said members of his GOP caucus have a problem with Assembly mining bill language that would eliminate contested case hearings during a streamlined permitting process, and that provision will have to be reworked for the legislation to clear his chamber. The Assembly GOP bill would create a minimum two-year timeline for approving a mining permit. It also would eliminate legal or agency challenges that would delay approval of a permit, including the contested case hearings that allow the public to challenge a project before a permit is issued. Backers said the bill would still allow the public to sue over a permit once it was issued, but not before.
Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn) continues to work on the Senate’s version of the legislation, and with a 17-16 majority in the Senate, having the entire GOP caucus on board could be key in getting the bill through that chamber.
However, Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) said the state does not need a wholesale change of its mine approval standards and accused Gogebic Taconite of trying to blackmail the state into “surrendering its protection of natural resources.”