Why I voted against the Open-Pit Mining Bill
“We must find a consensus, not conquer those who disagree,” said Senator Bob Jauch.
The Senator knows about disagreement. His Senate district includes an area of the state known as the Penokee Range. A 22 mile iron ore vein runs through this range. Dotted on its surface are lakes, trout streams and the head waters of many rivers. Downstream is the Bad River watershed and the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa.
The Bad River watershed contains 40% of all the wetlands in the Lake Superior watershed. The lake is the largest fresh water body on the planet. Wisconsin passed into law protection of this water through the Great Lakes Compact.
Property owners in Senator Jauch’s district are concerned about the effects of the mine on their water and their way of life. Constituents in his district oppose the mine by 3 to 1.
In the 31st Senate District, western Wisconsin citizen opposition to mining runs deep. By 20 to 1 contacts to my office oppose SB1 – the recently passed open-pit iron-ore mining bill.
I voted against SB 1 and I’d like to explain why.
Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) is one of the nation’s largest coal mining companies. The company came to Wisconsin asking for a streamlined, predictable and more certain process for permitting an iron-ore mine. Legislators responded last session with a bill that failed to pass the Senate by one vote.
During the summer and fall the Senate Select Committee on Mining, under the direction of Senator Cullen, worked to draft a responsible mining bill that would streamline the process and protect the environment. The Committee heard over 20 hours of public testimony and took input of mining industry professionals, state and federal regulators, Native Americans, environmentalists and citizens in northern Wisconsin.
What emerged from this work was Senate Bill 3, a bipartisan bill that streamlined the process, assured collaboration between the state and federal officials, protected the interests of local communities and provided certainty to the mine owners. The bill did not change environmental protections nor did it release the mine from local or environmental laws. The bill allowed for a master public hearing once the DNR approved the permit and made immediate payments to local communities affected by the mine.
I cosponsored and voted in favor of a version of this bill on the Senate floor.
But, this was not the mining bill that passed.
Another bill, drafted in secret and assigned to Senator Tiffany was brought to light for one public hearing before both the Assembly and Senate Committees. The bill released the mine from following Wisconsin laws related to protecting our water. For example, the bill allowed the mine to fill streams less than two miles long and ponds less than two acres wide or any pond that completely froze through.
Senator Tiffany claimed filling of streams and ponds was necessary. Senator Schultz argued so many streams would be filled they would stretch from Lambeau Field to Camp Randall – 108 miles.
Senate Bill 1 created longer delays and added higher costs to the mining permitting process particularly because of the unworkable time frame with the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps must approve the mine before construction can begin. The bill creates a fractured and uncertain process that will likely lead to a many-year delay.
The Wisconsin Constitution safeguards the state’s lakes and rivers as public resources owned in common by all Wisconsin citizens. The bill will almost certainly result in lawsuits from the tribe and others concerned with violation of this protection. Department of Justice officials recognized this when they were unable to determine eventual court costs.
Open-pit iron mining is a very complex industry. Crafting a responsible new law means carefully balancing the need for business and the protection for our environment. It means respecting local residents’ rights and concerns of tribal nations.
Good legislation requires compromise and attention to details to avoid costly court battles. Unfortunately Senate Bill 1 seems designed to provoke court battles. As such it fails the request of mine owners – to streamline the process and of local residents – to protect the environment.
This is why I voted “No”.