By Todd Richmond
MADISON — A lobbyist for a company looking to open a giant iron mine near Lake Superior promised Wednesday it would return to Wisconsin and hire residents if legislators pass a bill easing the regulatory path.
Gogebic Taconite lobbyist Bob Seitz told lawmakers during a public hearing that the company intends to return to Wisconsin if the bill passes. Seitz acknowledged the company might hire some out-of-state workers with specialized expertise but would hire from within the state as well. He said Wisconsin workers are committed to their homes and can handle the harsh winters, making it more likely they’ll stay with their jobs.
“What do people think is wrong with Wisconsin workers?” Seitz said. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t stick with the workers we have here.”
Republicans looking to deliver on job creation promises have been working for months to overhaul regulations to help Gogebic Taconite kick-start the mine, which would straddle the border between Ashland and Iron counties. The company has promised the mine would create thousands of jobs. Environmentalists contend the project would devastate one of the last pristine areas in the state.
The GOP introduced a sweeping bill last year but it failed by one vote in the Senate, prompting Gogebic Taconite to pull out and start exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Republicans introduced essentially the same bill last week, insisting the measure upholds environmental standards and would lead to thousands of jobs.
Republicans won another majority in the Assembly and a larger edge in the Senate in the November elections. With Republican Gov. Scott Walker still in office, it’s all but certain some form of the bill will pass this time.
The Senate and Assembly mining committees launched the drive toward passage with Wednesday’s public hearing. The committees weren’t scheduled to vote, but supporters and opponents still spent all day sparring about jobs and environmental ruin.
Gary Pelkola, the owner of the Iron Nugget restaurant in Hurley, a city of about 1,500 people that serves as the Iron County seat, pleaded with lawmakers to pass the bill. He said he can remember when iron mining was northwestern Wisconsin’s economic lifeblood and the area didn’t suffer any adverse environmental effects. He said he’s spent years watching people leave the region for better prospects elsewhere.
“We have all dreamed for the last 50 years of what would happen if mining ever came back to Hurley,” Pelkola said.
Mick Isham, chairman of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees Wisconsin Chippewa tribes’ off-reservation rights, warned legislators they should have consulted with the tribes when they drew up the bill. The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s reservation sits just north of the mine site and the tribe particularly is worried about pollution wrecking their treasured wild rice beds, he said.
“That landscape would be changed by this for hundreds or thousands of years,” Isham said. “To me, this would be completely devastating.”
Democrats on the committees peppered Seitz and Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams with multiple what-if scenarios, asking whether the company really is committed to the project, whether it would hire Wisconsin workers when hundreds of experienced miners are out of work around the country and what the company would do if iron prices plummet and the mine no longer is viable.
Seitz promised work would begin as soon as Walker signs the bill. He promised to release thousands of pages detailing the company’s plans after the bill becomes law.
He said the company might turn to some out-of-state workers with specialized expertise since Wisconsin hasn’t seen large-scale mining for years. But, he said, the company has a history of hiring locally and training those workers.
Williams told lawmakers the mine would be a state-of-the-art, highly efficient operation that would be well-positioned to withstand fluctuations in the iron market. He played on the potential for jobs, saying the mine would create work for construction workers, manufacturers and electricians.
“This,” Williams said, “is touching all parts of the state.”