By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – After nearly a year of maneuvering to help a Florida-based company open an iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin, Assembly Republicans were poised Thursday to finally pass a bill that streamlines the state’s complex permitting process.
Republicans looking to deliver on job creation promises have been working since last spring to kick-start Gogebic Taconite’s plans for an iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior.
The company has promised the project will create hundreds of positions, but opponents fear the mine will ruin one of the most pristine regions in Wisconsin.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker is behind the bill, calling again during his State of the State address Wednesday night for lawmakers to pass it. Republicans control the Assembly, making passage in that house all but certain.
Assembly approval would kick the bill to the state Senate, but from there things get murky.
Republicans control the Senate, but they’ve been treading cautiously on mining changes. The GOP holds only a one-vote majority in the chamber and four GOP senators face potential recall elections later this year. Passing the bill could generate even more anger among voters.
The Senate appointed a special committee to study mining issues last fall, but the panel has met only once. Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, the committee’s chairman, ticked off a number of questions about the Assembly proposal Thursday, saying the Senate might revamp the bill. All he could say for sure was he wants to get a mining bill out of the Senate before the legislative session ends in March.
“I’m not here to criticize the Assembly bill. They’re putting out a product they feel their members are able to support, but that doesn’t mean we can’t add additional ideas and make the legislation better,” Kedzie said.
The bill would require the state Department of Natural Resources to make a decision on an iron mining application within a year. Currently the process is open-ended.
Other sections of the bill would eliminate so-called contested case hearings – quasi-judicial proceedings to decide challenges to the DNR’s permitting decisions – and bar anyone who isn’t directly injured by a mining operation from filing lawsuits challenging DNR permit enforcement or alleging mining law violations.
The measure also calls for a dividing the revenue from a state ore tax between local governments and the state. The locals would get 60 percent and the state would take 40 percent. Currently 100 percent of the revenue goes to the locals to help them mitigate damage the mine and equipment might cause to roads and other infrastructure. The bill also would cap an applicant’s fees at $2 million.
Kedzie said he wants to be sure the bill retains some process for the public to challenge permitting decisions but bars frivolous attacks. He also said his committee has questions about whether the 60-40 revenue split and the fee cap are appropriate.
“It’s about jobs and it’s about the environment,” Kedzie said. “We’re not going to do anything to put the environment in harm’s way. (But) you cannot mine without environmental impacts. It’s about minimizing that impact. This doesn’t come easy.”
Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams said massive revisions could push the bill past the end of the session.
“If it ends in mid-March, we’ve lost another year,” he said. “There’s going to be a point in time when you’ve succeeded in chasing out a mining company by using delay tactics. We’ll have to see what they do.”
Debate began about mid-afternoon in the Assembly with Democrats ripping the measure as a corporate give-back.
“All we have in the bill before us is ways to protect … and provide revenue for one out-of-state mining company,” Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, said. Her district includes the Penokee Hills mine site.
“This is an outrage.”
Mine opponents spent the day speaking out against the legislation in a Capitol hearing room, propping signs against the walls that read “there will be no mine, end of story, get out” and “they say mine, we say ours!!”
Members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa filled the room. The tribe’s reservation is located just downstream from the mine site and fears pollution from the mine will contaminate their beloved rice beds. Tribal elder Joseph Rose regaled listeners with the tribe’s creation stories, saying humans were meant to live in harmony with nature and not take more than they need.
“That’s the very basis of our spirituality,” Rose said. “What will we be leaving to that seventh generation? Will there be clean water? Will there be fresh air? Will there be birds and animals?”