Gov. Scott Walker signed Republicans’ polarizing mining bill into law Monday, completing a months-long, all-out campaign to jump-start a giant iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin.
The legislation will dramatically reshape Wisconsin’s mining regulations to ease the permitting process for the open-pit mine Gogebic Taconite wants to dig just south of Lake Superior. Environmentalists maintain the measure guts the state’s environmental protections, but Republicans say it will help create thousands of jobs.
"Wisconsin’s seal and the state flag both depict mining in our great state," Walker said in a statement after he signed the bill at Oldenburg Group Inc., a Rhinelander mining equipment manufacturer. "In light of our mining tradition, I’m thrilled to sign legislation into law protecting environmental safeguards, while providing certainty to the mine permitting process. … I am hopeful today’s actions will result in the creation of thousands of private sector jobs in the coming years."
Gogebic Taconite, a unit of the Florida-based Cline Group, has been eyeing an iron deposit in the Penokee Hills, which run through Ashland and Iron counties about 30 miles from Lake Superior. Wisconsin’s business lobby says the mine would create hundreds of jobs for the impoverished region and thousands more in the state’s heavy equipment manufacturing sector.
But company officials refused to move forward until lawmakers eased the regulatory path for them. Eager to deliver on job creation promises they made on the campaign trail, Republicans introduced a bill in late 2011 that would have overhauled the state’s regulations. Environmentalists and Democrats railed against the measure and it ultimately failed by one vote in the state Senate after moderate Republican Dale Schultz sided with minority Democrats against the plan.
Republicans gained a two-member majority in the Senate in last November’s elections, though, making Schultz’s stance irrelevant. The GOP introduced a nearly identical bill in January that lawmakers crafted with Gogebic Taconite’s input and put on the fast-track; the Senate passed it during the last week in February, and the Assembly followed suit last week, all without a single Democrat supporting the measure.
The legislation gives state environmental officials up to 480 days to make a permitting decision; right now the process is open-ended. It also bars public challenges during the process, allowing them only after the decision has been made.
The law creates a presumption that damage to wetlands is necessary and limits permit application fees to $2 million. It splits tax revenue on iron mining companies’ revenue between local governments and the state — right now all mining taxes go to the locals — and exempts companies from paying the state’s $7 per ton recycling fee on waste rock.
— Todd Richman, “Scott Walker signs mining bill into law; opponents prepare for legal battle,” Associated Press, March 12 2013
A company that wants to dig a massive iron mine near Lake Superior appears close to obtaining a stormwater permit that will allow it to widen and build new roads on the mine site to allow removal of 4,000 tons of rock for testing.
Meanwhile, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources air quality official said Wednesday that the agency decided it didn’t have authority to regulate any possible asbestos-like material that may be exposed during the bulk sampling operation.
Earlier this week, the DNR granted Gogebic Taconite an exemption from any requirement for an air pollution permit, which would have required detailed plans for controlling and monitoring dust released into the air when crews use machinery to hammer rock, screen it, load it into trucks and take it away, said Kristin Hart, a section chief in the agency’s air management program.
The company plans to test the rock to find out the type of equipment needed to extract iron.
The air permit exemption was issued because projections indicated that sampling would generate less than 10 tons of dust in a year, Hart said. But the company must keep materials wet to minimize the escape of particulate matter, she said.
Asbestos-like material has been found on the mine site, but Hart said state law allows her department to regulate hazardous materials only if they come out of smokestacks. Federal agencies regulate asbestos mines, but its not clear which laws apply here, she said.
Gogebic Taconite has stated it doesn’t believe much of the cancer-causing material is present, and it has refused DNR requests for an accounting of what it finds during bulk sampling.
—- Steven Verburg, “Gogebic Taconite may soon have permission to start bulk sampling at iron mine site,” Wisconsin State Journal, February 6 2014
Wisconsin has been an environmental leader since 1910, when the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment promoting forest and water conservation. Decades later, pioneering local environmentalists like Aldo Leopold and Senator Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day in 1970, helped forge the nation’s ecological conscience.
But now, after the recent passage of a bill that would allow for the construction of what could be the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine, Wisconsin’s admirable history of environmental stewardship is under attack.
The mine, to be built by Gogebic Taconite (GTac), owned by the coal magnate Chris Cline, would be in the Penokee Hills, in the state’s far north — part of a vast, water-rich ecosystem that President John F. Kennedy described in 1963, in a speech he delivered in the area, as “a central and significant portion of the freshwater assets of this country.”
The $1.5 billion mine would initially be close to four miles long, up to a half-mile wide and nearly 1,000 feet deep, but it could be extended as long as 21 miles. In its footprint lie the headwaters of the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world and by far the cleanest of the Great Lakes. Six miles downstream from the site is the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose livelihood is threatened by the mine.
To facilitate the construction of the mine and the company’s promise of 700 long-term jobs, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation last year granting GTac astonishing latitude. The new law allows the company to fill in pristine streams and ponds with mine waste. It eliminates a public hearing that had been mandated before the issuing of a permit, which required the company to testify, under oath, that the project had complied with all environmental standards. It allows GTac to pay taxes solely on profit, not on the amount of ore removed, raising the possibility that the communities affected by the mine’s impact on the area’s roads and schools would receive only token compensation.
The legislation has generated fierce opposition since it was first introduced in 2011. The following year, the bill was actually defeated in the State Senate, 17 to 16, owing to the defection of one Republican, Dale Schultz. After the vote, the Republican majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, told me that “the corporation and their attorneys drafted a bill that may have been acceptable in other states,” with the implication being that the company had perhaps gone too far for Wisconsin.
Since then, however, Democrats have lost three Senate seats and an even more industry-friendly version of the bill was revived and passed. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a campaign-finance watchdog, GTac executives and other mine supporters have donated a total of $15 million to Governor Walker and Republican legislators, outspending the mine’s opponents by more than 600 to 1.
Most distressing to many native Wisconsinites, including me, was the way the bill violated a bipartisan, reform-minded civic tradition called the Wisconsin Idea. For more than a century, the Wisconsin Idea had encouraged the use of scientific expertise to inform public policy, but the mining bill dangerously ignores geological reality.
Before the passage of the bill, Marcia Bjornerud, a geology professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., testified before the legislature that samples she had taken from the mine site revealed the presence of sulfides both in the target iron formation and in the overlying rock that would have to be removed to get to the iron-bearing rocks. (When exposed to air and water, sulfides oxidize and turn water acidic, which can be devastating to rivers and streams, along with their fish populations.) Sulfide minerals, Professor Bjornerud said, would be an unavoidable byproduct of the iron mining. But the bill does not mandate a process for preventing the harm from the sulfide minerals that mining would unleash.
Equally troubling was the more recent discovery by Tom Fitz, a geology professor at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., of a highly carcinogenic asbestos-form mineral at one of GTac’s sampling sites. The fibers of the mineral, which would be dispersed in blasting, are like tiny, breathable needles.
The Bad River fear the contamination of the fish they depend on for food and the destruction of sensitive wild rice beds that they harvest on the coast of Lake Superior. Mr. Wiggins has voiced his opposition to the mining legislation in private meetings with Mr. Walker, led Wisconsin’s tribes in demonstrations at the State Capitol in Madison and allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars of the Bad River tribe’s scant resources to legal fees to fight the mine.
The Bad River and several other tribes assert that the state has no right to permit the enormous mine without their agreement since the site lies in “ceded territory,” an area covering a large portion of Northern Wisconsin where tribal members maintain special hunting, fishing and harvesting rights enshrined in federal treaties. Last June, one of the tribes established an educational camp near the mining site to draw attention to how the mine would violate its treaty rights, as well as to highlight sustainable alternatives to mining. GTac responded to a minor altercation with protesters unconnected to the camp by hiring an Arizona-based private-security firm, which sent guards armed with semiautomatic weapons to patrol the mine site.
In the Chippewa tradition, a decision is made based on how it will affect people seven generations forward. By contrast, the company’s optimistic estimate for the life span of the first phase of the mine is 35 years.
—- Dan Kaufman, “The Fight For Wisconsin’s Soul,” The New York Times, March 29 2014