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Assembly could vote on mining bill next week (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state Assembly is set to vote next week on a bill that pits the promise of hundreds of jobs against worries an iron ore mine would despoil a pristine area in northern Wisconsin near Lake Superior.

Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said in a statement Tuesday that he hoped to vote on the bill Jan. 19. A public hearing on the proposal in Hurley, near where Gogebic Taconite hopes to open the mine, was set for Wednesday. It comes following criticism of the previous hearing being held near Milwaukee, about 300 miles away from where the mine would be.

The mine’s backers say it would bring more than 700 mining jobs to an economically depressed area and create 2,000 ancillary jobs. But environmentalists and tribal leaders who live in the Penokee Hills area are worried about the long-term effects of mining for iron ore in one of the state’s most pristine regions.

“This comes down to a choice between creating thousands of high paying jobs for Wisconsinites and bending to extreme environmental special interests,” Fitzgerald said. “I know what side I am on.”

But Amber Meyer Smith with the environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin said the bill should be scrapped.

Gogebic President Bill Williams said many people mistakenly believe passing the bill would allow the mine to open.

“This bill is not issuing a permit,” Williams said. “This bill is issuing a process for the DNR to implement.”

While the Assembly might vote on the bill next week, it is unclear when the Senate will take it up. The Senate is reviewing the proposal, said Andrew Welhouse, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. He did not indicate when the Senate may debate it.

Passing the iron mining bill is one of the top priorities of Republicans who control the Legislature, as well as Gov. Scott Walker.

The prospect of jobs that the mine could bring would be welcome news and campaign fodder for Walker, who faces a possible recall election this spring or summer, and Republican lawmakers who hope to hang on to their majorities in the Senate and Assembly.

The mine would be located along a 4-1/2 mile stretch of the hills near Mellen, a city of about 900 people just south of the reservation for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior. Company officials say the first phase of the project would last at least 35 years and generate about $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue, creating 700 jobs for people in the area and 2,000 ancillary jobs for the region’s service and transportation industries.

But it wouldn’t come without costs.

The state Department of Natural Resources on Monday estimated its one-time costs, which would include an environmental impact study, at $400,000 to $3 million, and annual costs over the four years it’s expected to take to for the mine to become operational at $150,000 to $800,000.

That would put the cost to taxpayers during the four-year period at $1 million to $6.2 million. And those projections do not include long-term costs, such as oversight while the mine is in use and monitoring after the mine is closed. Those costs were not accounted for the in the estimate. Most of the expenses detailed by DNR are associated with reviewing mine permits, a process that involves studying the effects a mine could have on air, water and threatened species.

Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said the cost estimates are providing a dose of reality to a bill that is “kind of pie in the sky.”

“It’s another signal to me that this bill was drafted by people with mining interests as their main priority,” Wiggins said. “If there was a true effort to reflect balance or the environment or concerns about water, you would see a drastically different bill.”

The Bad River band’s reservation lies just north of the proposed mine site, and the tribe is worried a mine would ruin the regional water quality and destroy the sloughs the tribe uses for its traditional wild rice harvests.

The 183-page legislation subject to Wednesday’s hearing would require the DNR to approve or deny an iron mine application within 360 days, eliminate challenges to DNR permitting decisions along the way and limit who could sue over permit violations. It also would ease standards for water withdrawals and redirect half of a state tax on ore sales that currently is earmarked for municipalities near mines back to the state.

Williams, Gogebic’s president, downplayed environmental concerns.

“Is this the only beautiful area up here? I hope not,” he said. “If this is the only pristine area, then there are issues the state has that go beyond mining. There are hundreds of areas like this up here and there still would be.”

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