By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker planned to sign a bill Monday lifting Wisconsin’s moratorium on gold and silver mining, reversing his vote from nearly 20 years ago imposing the ban.
The governor was scheduled to sign the GOP-sponsored bill during a mid-day stop at the Oneida County Airport in Rhinelander. Supporters of the bill say lifting the moratorium will re-energize mining in northern Wisconsin and boost the region’s economy.
Opponents say it will open the door to devastating pollution.
Lawmakers from both parties put the ban in place in 1998 out of concerns about sulfide mining polluting Wisconsin’s waters. Walker was then a member of the state Assembly and voted to impose the prohibition. A spokesman for the governor, Tom Evenson, has said in recent weeks that the governor believes mining can be done without harming the environment, but he hasn’t offered anything more to explain the governor’s change of heart.
Gold, copper, zinc, nickel and other metals are typically found bonded to sulfur. Such compounds produce sulfuric acid when exposed to oxygen and water, increasing the risk that runoff will pollute streams and rivers.
Sulfuric acid is a corrosive chemical that readily mixes with water and can kill fish, plants and insects, as well as burn human skin, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Acidic waters also can release heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury when they pass through waste mining rock and mining tailings, according to the federation.
The law from 1998 prevents sulfide-mining applicants from opening mines without first proving a similar mine has operated for 10 years somewhere in North America without polluting. It also requires applicants to prove a similar mine has been closed in North America for a decade without causing pollution.
No other state has such requirements. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has never issued a final determination that any mining applicant has satisfied the standards.
The bill would eliminate those requirements, as well as ease sulfide-mining regulations. Large-scale sampling operations would no longer need to obtain environmental-impact statements. Administrative-law judges wouldn’t be able to block any DNR decisions on mining applications, forcing challengers into circuit court.
Mining applicants also would no longer have to establish perpetual trust funds to cover environmental damage, although they would be financially responsible for any environmental damage within 40 years of a mine’s being closed down and would have to maintain the mine’s water management systems for 250 years.
The bill comes as the second significant piece of legislation designed to jump-start the mining industry in northern Wisconsin that Walker will have signed since taking office in 2011. The other bill loosened Wisconsin’s iron-mining regulations. The proposal was designed to clear the way for Gogebic Taconite to dig a massive open-pit mine near Lake Superior. The company promised the mine would create hundreds of jobs but ultimately gave up on the project.
Most bills take effect within days of the governor signing them, but Republican Rep. Jerry Petrowski amended the current mining bill to delay its effective date for six months. Petrowski said he wanted to give local governments time to develop their own mining ordinances, saying in a letter to the Wisconsin counties and towns associations that sulfide mining carries “inherent risks.”