After nine hours of grueling debate, Wisconsin’s Senate passed a bill Wednesday by a single vote to make changes to Wisconsin’s iron ore mining regulations.
Sen. Dale Schultz, R–Richland Center, was the lone Republican to cross party lines and vote against the bill, which passed 17-16.
If the Republican-controlled Assembly passes the bill, the first bill introduced in the 2013-2015 legislative session will be forwarded to Gov. Scott Walker, who will very likely sign it into law.
Sen. Robert Cowles, R–Green Bay, could have been the last senator standing in the way of the bill’s narrow passage because he said he was concerned about the measure’s environmental impact groundwater. However, he said that amendments and work on the bill during the last session had addressed his concerns.
Schultz said he voted against the bill because its detrimental ramifications on the mining area outweighed political policy interests.
“It is important for us to remember in this day and age, when I think virtually everyone has a conscience about our environment that we don’t willy-nilly wander into a test stage that will have long-term ramifications on our environment because of partisanship,” Schultz said.
The mining bill, which was introduced in the previous session but failed to pass, eases iron ore mining restrictions and paves the way for Gogebic Taconite to open a large-scale mine in northern Wisconsin. Republicans have said the proposed mine in Ashland and Iron Counties will create hundreds of jobs for the state.
Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, co-sponsored the bill and said the legislation will not only stimulate the economy but also avoid serious environmental damage. He added legislators often reduce the bill to a choice of jobs or the environment.
“The point I’m making to you is we can have both,” Tiffany said. “The technology we have is completely different from what it was 50 years ago…the rock characterization process we have written into this bill is thorough.”
Tiffany said the bill was a 21st century iron mining bill. However, Democratic senators proposed 13 amendments primarily intended to prevent contamination of the entire state’s water supply, which the Senate voted down.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D–Milwaukee, said he believes the way the bill is written would allow for waste rock to be dumped in watersheds.
“We can’t afford an oops,” he said. “We only get one shot. They screw this up, and we’re going to be cleaning it up for decades, for centuries. Let’s get it right.”
According to the bill, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will have 420 days to act on the application for the mining permit as soon as the bill is passed and the application is complete.
Jauch added Democrats will not be silenced even if Walker writes the bill into law.
“This is an invitation to litigation,” he said. “Everyone knows it.”