Mining debate is far from over

Michael Wiggins Jr., tribal chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, says his tribe “will do whatever it takes” as a sovereign nation to stop a proposed iron mine near its reservation, including taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The tribe strongly opposes a bill in the state Legislature that would change the state’s mining regulations to ease the approval of new mines.

“If the bill went through as is, there would probably be a point where we’d have to wash our hands of the state of Wisconsin and essentially approach this from the federal side of things,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins recently spoke at one of two luncheons, both hosted by The Rotary Club of Milwaukee, on the state’s mining bill. Wiggins spoke in opposition of the bill. At the other Rotary Club luncheon, Scott Manley, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) vice president of government relations, spoke in favor of the bill.

“A lot of people are saying the mining laws (in Wisconsin) right now are working just fine,” Manley said. “I guess I agree with that if the objective is to make sure we never have mining (in Wisconsin).”

Mining company Gogebic Taconite, a subsidiary of Cline Resource and Development, has been pushing for new mining legislation in the state to help it move forward with plans for a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in Iron and Ashland counties. The first version of the bill failed to pass the state Senate last year by a single vote. One year later, after gaining an additional seat in the state Senate, Republicans in the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker have made the passage of the mining bill a top priority.

Supporters of the mining bill say it would result in a major economic boost to the state, particularly if the Gogebic Taconite mine is created.

“This would be a $1.5 billion investment (by Gogebic Taconite) and would lead to the creation of an estimated 2,000 construction jobs to build the mine,” Manley said. “Then, once the mine is operational, there would be 700 jobs to begin with just at the mine, and another 2,100 in various sectors of the economy to support that large operation. If they ramped up production beyond that, the numbers would grow.”

Opponents say that changes to mining regulations that open the door to operations such as the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine would harm the state’s environment.

The core of Higgins’ argument against the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine has to do with water. He discussed a variety of issues pertaining to the region’s water resources and the affect the mine would have on the region, such as concerns about long-term groundwater contamination, changing temperatures in the region’s rivers and lakes, damage to wetlands and the presence of sulfide minerals in the mountain.

“Poisoning or contaminating the groundwater aquifer in our mind is non-negotiable and unacceptable,” he said.

Manley, however, argued that existing environmental standards are unchanged by the proposed mining legislation.

“The same public health protective standards that are on the books today would remain so under this legislation,” he said.

Manley discussed roles played by environmental regulators, specifically the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“There have been a lot of people who have tried to portray this debate as being, you either have to have jobs or environmental protection and you can’t have both,” Manley said. “We just fundamentally don’t agree with that. We think you can have jobs and you can have robust environmental review and protection and we think this legislation achieves that.”

The main argument for the mine put forth by Manley is that the proposed mine would add a new economic engine to Iron and Ashland counties, a region with higher than average unemployment and a low median income.

Wiggins, however, takes issue with the jobs numbers put forth by the WMC, saying the cost analysis and job projections have not been objective.

“Until you look at it objectively, I think it’s all subject to debate,” Wiggins said. “I’ve watched 700 jobs morph, magically into – with all due respect – into the Governor’s State of the State address, and it’s 5,400 jobs right now. I have no idea where that came from. Without any data or research to back that up, I see it as fantasy.”

A recent poll, the Wisconsin Economic Scorecard, conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Urban Initiatives and Research, Milwaukee Public Radio (WUWM) and in early February showed that public support for the bill was “closely divided,” with 43 percent in favor, 41 percent opposed and 16 percent neutral or uncertain.

Much of the debate within the bill’s legislation has to do with the current permitting process, which Manley sees as an obstacle to investment. Manley said the current permitting process is “open-ended” and the process would be shortened through the new legislation. There would be a minimum of one year required to gather data and complete the necessary environmental research, he said, which would then begin a 420-day period in which the DNR would be required to make a decision. That 420-day period, however, has been addressed with an amendment that would allow the DNR and the mining company to agree on an extended timeframe.

Extended timeframe or not, Wiggins says there is no way to safely operate a mine in the location proposed by Gogebic Taconite.

“Mother Nature does not know how to read,” he said. “The geologic composition and what’s inside that mountain is going to dictate whether or not you’re going to be dealing with acidic drainage.”

Wiggins says he and his tribe will be fighting the mine every step of the way, even if the bill is ultimately passed.

“If the mining bill gets passed, that could be seen as an accomplishment and maybe an end to the process, but it’s really just the beginning,” he said. “On the tribal side of things, we understand that even with the passage of that bill, it’s going to be many, many years before a mining company could even get close to that mountain.”

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Dan Shafer, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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