As the Legislature readies to officially decide whether to support a contentious mining bill today, debates have continued to rage regarding the environmental impact of building the mine among lawmakers, lobbyists and state agencies.
The Assembly is poised to pass the Republican-backed bill proposal and place it on Gov. Walker’s desk to sign next week. The GOP holds a 30 seat advantage in the Assembly, but that will not stop the Democrats from ensuring all representatives hear their voices of opposition, according to Rep. André Jacque, R–DePere.
Jacque said he expects a nine-and-a-half-hour Assembly floor session Thursday full of “robust discussion.”
“Largely, this is going to be a debate on whether or not we want to see mining in Wisconsin based on what is, I think, reasonable standards,” he said. “This is something that can be done responsibly. It would help a very economically depressed portion of the state and support a lot of other industry in Wisconsin.”
Jacque added there is no perfect bill ever introduced in the Legislature, but he said he feels confident about environmental protections in place. He noted the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and its Public Trust Doctrine would all regulate the proposed mining operation.
DNR spokesperson Ann Coakley said the current laws and proposed changes to groundwater policy have environmental consequences.
“They both require avoiding and minimizing environmental impacts; however, the proposed new law allows for more impacts than current law does,” she said. “The new law may impact the environment more. It doesn’t mean it will for sure.”
Coakley said she has read the iron ore bill enough times to consider herself an expert on it, yet she has only had preliminary conversations with Gogebic Taconite company leaders. As a result, she does not know the exact environmental impacts without knowing the specifics of the proposal.
If the mining bill is signed into law, Gogebic Taconite must spend at least a year drafting background data before submitting a mine engineering application to the DNR, according to Coakley. Upon receiving the plan proposal, she said her department will have 420 days to evaluate the application.
Coakley added the company will be denied a permit if the application fails to sufficiently avoid sufficient groundwater impacts.
However, one conservation advocate said they think it is “unbelievable” how unsustainable the bill is because the DNR is only allowed to uphold state law. Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters Program Director Anne Sayers said it will become less restrictive regarding groundwater standards if the Assembly supports the mining bill.
“This is an extremely flawed bill that says the DNR no longer has to implement the groundwater law in the books when it comes to open-pit mining and iron ore,” Sayers said, adding it exempts mining companies from DNR regulation.
Sayers said Gogebic Taconite is a mountaintop removal coal mining company with a history of environmental violations.
Allowing this “devastating” piece of legislation to pass will set a dangerous precedent for Wisconsin’s environmental protection policies, according to Sayers.
“Not only will it harm our natural resources and our public health, it sends the message to companies around the country that if there is a particular environmental law that stands in the way, you can come into Wisconsin and we’ll go ahead and roll it back,” she said.