Wisconsin Reps. seek to ease mining regulation, fast track iron ore project
The desperate need for jobs in northern Wisconsin has generated increased momentum among state lawmakers to create a favorable regulatory environment for the Gogebic Taconite iron ore project.
Posted: Friday , 09 Dec 2011
RENO, NV -
The state--which rejected the proposed Crandon gold mining project in the 1990s and engaged in a series of protests from February to June of this year that all but shut down the Wisconsin Legislature-- now says it desperately needs a change in mining regulations to generate the 700 jobs a US$1.5 billion iron ore mining project would bring.
On Thursday, Republican lawmakers of the Wisconsin Assembly introduced a measure that will require Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to act on a mining permit application within 360 days after application.
The bill also eliminates so-called citizens' lawsuits against iron ore mining, as well as contested case hearings.
The measure is specifically aimed at helping Gogebic Taconite open an iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills south of Lake Superior. Gogebic Taconite is a development-stage iron ore mining company that claims more than two billion tons of iron resources in Ashland and Iron Counties in Wisconsin. The ore body is a continuation of the Ironwood Iron Formation encountered in Michigan.
Opponents claim the project could pollute streams and lakes, as well as groundwater in the area. Environmentalists also argue wetlands could be lost, as water drawdowns could hurt both public and private wells. The open-pit mine would be reclaimed as a lake at the end of the estimated 40-year mine life.
However, mining officials say they will use a dry stacking system that will remove water from wastes from the mine and from ore processing. The operation also intends to recycle water.
Plans for the first phase of the mine would generate 2,834 long-term jobs including 700 direct mining jobs at an average salary of $82,984. Total economic impact of the mine over two years is $2 billion, as well as $20.6 million in state/local tax revenue.
Gogebic officials have suspended their plans, saying they want the Wisconsin Legislature to create a certain end point in Wisconsin's mine permitting process. Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature have been trying for months to introduce a bill to streamline the process.
Assembly Republicans Thursday introduced a 183-page bill to reform the mining permitting process. "This is probably one of the biggest job bills we are going to pass this session," said Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, who was among several Republicans who held a press conference Thursday to announce their bill introduction. "These jobs are desperately needed."
The same state which rejected the Crandall gold mining projects in the 1990s, now invokes Wisconsin's mining history. The Badger State's nickname is derived from lead miners who were said to burrow like badgers. A miner is also portrayed in Wisconsin's state seal.
"Is the miner on that flag, just going to be part of our history or part of our future?" asked Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst.
However, environmentalists object to changing state regulations for the benefit of a single mining project. Critics say the bill reduces environmental protection as well as public involvement in the permitting process.
The Tribal Council of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa is concerned mining will hurt the North Woods' most important source of income, tourism. The tribe is the largest employer in Ashland County with many of the jobs at the Odanah casino.
Gogebic Taconite officials say the company will not invest $20 million in additional mine studies unless it receives assurances of an end point to a permitting process that now can require years of applications, environmental impact studies, public hearings and challenges.
During a hearing last month of the Senate Select Committee on Mining Jobs, State Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Popular, observed the permit for the Flambeau copper and silver mine, which operated in the 1990s, was only issued in 3 ½ years. "Frankly, I struggle with trying to figure out what is so terribly broken."
"The Assembly Republicans have not been in communication with Senate Republics or any other member of the [Senate Mining] committee as they developed this legislation," Jauch told Madison.com. "It's an insult that the public will be given only six days to review the bill and prepare comments and questions before the public hearing after the authors took six months drafting it behind closed doors."
However, the mining company and other critics of Wisconsin's current mining law point to the decade-long consideration of the proposed Crandall Gold Mine before Exxon Minerals finally pulled its application. Ann Coakley, a DNR mining specialist, told the Senate committee that DNR may have asked for too much information from Exxon Minerals.
Coakley said Wisconsin DNR has just one staff member working on mining in contract to the 14 staffers who work on mining permits at Minnesota's DNR.
She asserted that the Gogebic Taconite Project's environmental impact could be substantial and may require the relocation of rivers and streams.
Among the bill's provisions are limits to DNR's authority in imposing conditions for federal permits as part of state water quality certification. It also does not allow impacts to nonfederal wetlands to be used as a basis of denying certification.
The bill also requires DNR to assess a fee equal to its costs for evaluating a mining project or $1.1 million, whichever is less.
The first public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday.