ASHLAND, Wis. (AP) — A hearing on proposed legislation that would streamline the state’s mining laws drew at least 200 people to northern Wisconsin on Saturday, with most saying the measure would lead to devastating environmental damage.
The listening session was organized by state Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, to give northern residents a chance to comment on a mine-permitting bill he offered as an alternative to the Republican bill approved last week by mining committees in both the Senate and the Assembly.
At issue is legislation designed to help Gogebic Taconite open a massive iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin. Republicans say the bill will ease the company’s regulatory path and help it create hundreds of jobs. Democrats and environmentalists argue that the bill weakens environmental protections and won’t create nearly as many Wisconsin jobs as the company claims.
Speakers at the Ashland hearing included members of the Bad River Chippewa band, whose reservation and rice beds are downriver from the proposed mine, as well as officials from neighboring cities, according to a Wisconsin State Journal report.
Ashland Mayor Bill Whalen asked legislators not to change current mining laws that protect communities such as his.
“That material from that mine will reach the bay in 25 or 30 years,” Whalen said. “It’s very important your legislation protects us.”
Mayor Larry McDonald of nearby Bayfield warned of potential damage to Lake Superior.
“Do no harm to Lake Superior,” McDonald said. “Don’t screw it up. We get only one shot at this.”
But other speakers argued in favor of the proposed legislation, saying the economically depressed area desperately needed jobs.
“The people here have been living in poverty for 50 to 100 years. That’s all they know,” Hurley resident Harry Ellsmore said. “… This mine opportunity is something that should not be taken lightly.”
But Bob Tammen, who drove to the hearing from Minnesota, said prosperity never came to the Minnesota communities near the state’s heavily mined Mesabi Range.
“We don’t have a healthy main street along 100 miles of the Mesabi Range,” Tammen said. “If mining brings prosperity, how come our communities don’t have it?”
Critics of the Republican bill say it weakens environmental protections by giving the state Department of Natural Resources too much latitude to exempt a mining company from laws that protect wetlands, lakes and rivers.
Cullen said his bill sets a reasonable timeline for the DNR to act on a mine permit but it doesn’t weaken environmental laws.
The Ashland hearing was attended by 10 Democratic legislators and one Republican, state Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center.
State Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said the listening session was also organized because people who live near the mine haven’t had a chance to be heard. “We will stay until the last person has a chance to speak,” Jauch said.
Republicans held only one hearing in Madison on the GOP bill that lasted a full day and still ended with at least 100 people waiting to testify.
Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj