Heated Debates in Madison Over Mining Bill

January 24, 2013

Milwaukee Riverkeeper and other environmental groups urged citizens to make their voices heard in Madison yesterday (January 23) for the one scheduled mining bill hearing.  Camps from both sides of the debate filled the 100-seat hearing room, plus two overflow rooms, during the all-day hearing.  Supporters of the bill repeatedly championed the economic benefits of the mine, while opponents decried weakened environmental protections, especially for wetlands, groundwater, and some surface water.

Debate over this issue has been raging for more than a year, since Gogebic Taconite stated that Wisconsin's mining laws had to change to build their proposed iron ore mine over 4 miles in Ashland and Iron counties.  Having narrowly missed passage in March 2012, GOP lawmakers are trying to push the same legislation through again.  With such a community uproar over the mining bill, Republicans told reporters that they may listen to Democrats and environmentalists about possible changes this time.

The proposed bill allows for mine wastes to be piled next to rivers and lakes, in floodplains and areas where groundwater contamination is deemed likely.  Also, the Department of Natural Resources would be given less time to review mining applications and more leeway to exempt companies from environmental regulations.  Potential sulfides in waste rock from the mine could taint local waterways.  The bill allows for a quasi-judicial process called a contested case hearing, so citizens could not challenge the DNR's decision to approve a mine and its potential environmental hazards, until after the mining company begins to work.  Clearly, the current bill is no where close to meeting necessary environmental standards.

Senator Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) released an alternative mining plan that makes no changes to existing environmental regulations, gives the DNR more time to conduct its review, and calls for a new tax on iron ore - that communities near the mine would benefit from.  After a full day of debate over the Republican-backed bill, the two sides will be hopefully be able to reach some common ground that allows for vital environmental protections to remain intact.

Read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for more information on yesterday's hearing and on the Sen. Cullen's alternate plan.

image courtesy of JSOnline