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End to Wisconsin sulfide mining moratorium advances

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans took their first votes Wednesday on a bill that would lift the state’s nearly 20-year moratorium on sulfide mining, pushing the measure through committee and clearing the way for a full vote by the Senate.

The Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry approved the bill on a 3-2 vote. All three Republicans on the panel, including the bill’s author, Tom Tiffany, voted for the proposal. The two Democrats on the committee, Jon Erpenbach and Bob Wirch, voted against it, warning that it would open the door to pollution.

Tiffany said the bill is about providing minerals for the military and manufacturers as well as creating jobs in economically depressed northern Wisconsin.

“We know one thing for certain with the mining moratorium law. There will be no more mining in the state of Wisconsin,” Tiffany said. “We should just take the miner off the state flag. He’s been unemployed for the last 25 years here in Wisconsin.”

The committee’s approval makes the bill available for Senate leaders to schedule for a full floor vote. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s spokesman, Dan Romportl, didn’t immediately reply to an email inquiring about when that might happen.

Both Fitzgerald and Gov. Scott Walker voted for the moratorium when the Legislature passed it in 1998. Fitzgerald was in the Senate and Walker in the Assembly at the time.

Fitzgerald has since signed on as a co-sponsor on the new bill. Walker’s office, meanwhile, hasn’t said whether the governor supports the proposal.

Under the moratorium, anyone looking to mine sulfide ores such as copper, gold or zinc must prove to the state Department of Natural Resources that a similar mine has operated in the U.S. or Canada for a decade without causing pollution. The applicant also must prove a similar mine has been closed in the U.S. or Canada for at least 10 years, also without causing pollution.

The DNR has never issued a final decision finding that any applicant has satisfied those standards. Tiffany insists that a Flambeau Mining Company operation near Ladysmith that closed in 1997 after four years of operation proves mining can be done safely.

Environmentalists, though, contend that mine is still polluting state waters.

The bill would eliminate the moratorium. It would exempt large-scale sampling operations from obtaining environmental-impact statements and prohibit administrative law judges from blocking any DNR decision concerning mining application. That would force challengers into trial court. Separately, the bill would do away with requirements calling on mining applicants to establish permanent trust funds to pay for any environmental damage that might result from their projects.

Committee Republicans walked the bill back a bit Wednesday, amending it to require the DNR to determine whether a mining applicant’s equipment would be capable of complying with air, water and waste standards as a condition of approval. It also would require applicants to maintain financial responsibility for any environmental damage that occurs within 40 years of a mine’s closing and guarantee they’ll pay for repairs and upkeep for their mines’ water-management systems for a period lasting between 40 and 250 years.

Tiffany said the financial-liability provisions take the place of the trust language. Erpenbach complained that those provisions are weaker than requiring financial responsibility in perpetuity and could leave future taxpayers on the hook for environmental cleanup.

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