A single vote in the state Senate ended a legislative debate spanning more than two years and paved the way for iron mining in Wisconsin to resume after a nearly 30-year hiatus.
The goal of the bill, originally introduced in December 2011, was to partner with other mining operations in the state and return environmentally sound mining to Wisconsin, according to Charlie Bellin, a spokesperson for Rep. Mary Williams, R–Medford.
According to Bellin, while the state is a home to the nation’s only two mining manufacturers, Wisconsin regulations prevented companies from receiving a mining permit. The bill passed through the Assembly in January 2011 with more than 60 percent of representatives voting to approve the bill. However, the Senate rejected the contentious bill by a vote of 17-16 that March.
Sixty-two Republican state legislators reintroduced the bill in January 2013. After an expedited process of pushing the bill forward, the Joint Committee on Finance approved the mining legislation Feb. 25, which squeaked through the Senate by a vote of 17-16 for the bill. The Assembly approved the bill Thursday.
On Feb. 25, Williams said the legislation could bring 14,000 jobs to the state. She added a company could only receive a mining permit after meeting Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources’ requirements.
According to Bellin, the difference between last year’s taconite mining bill failing to gain Senate approval and Gov. Scott Walker signing this year’s version into law Monday is two-fold.
“The Senate was what killed it last year,” Bellin said. “Having a bigger majority helped. But also, the bill was better than last year’s because of some of the [new amendments].”
Bellin said the mining bill that Walker will sign today had more ideas from the Democratic side of the aisle, which informed its amendments to last year’s proposed legislation. He said the amendments gave the DNR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more flexibility to change the bill, if necessary. Sen. Dale Schultz, R–Richland Center, was the lone senator to vote against party lines to narrow the gap of the bill’s passage.
However, his opposition made no effect with the GOP holding 18 seats of the state Senate, compared to the Democrats’ 15, according to Rep. Fred Kessler, D–Milwaukee.
“Elections count and the fact is, the Democrats lost one seat in the state,” Kessler said. “Sen. Shultz was the swing vote and, had the Senate been split 17-16, that would have been the vote that made the difference. But unfortunately, with his vote it didn’t matter.”
Many opposing the bill, including various statewide environmental groups, expressed concern for the possible contamination of the groundwater of neighboring properties and other negative environmental effects.
The bill will lower the restrictions on environmental pollution and open the largest open taconite mine in the world, according to a statement from the Sierra Club, John Muir Chapter, the national environmental organization’s state branch.
Bellin said many of the concerns legislators and advocacy groups had regarding the contamination of groundwater in the Bad River Watershed are unfounded, as the bill does not alter any of the DNR’s groundwater standards. However, mining companies will be less restricted in how they go about meeting those standards, Bellin said.
Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, who would have the mine located in her district, however, disagreed with Bellin, and was among those against the bill.
“If [a bill] allows something harmful, we should change it.…If we know that it is ineffective, we should change it,” Bewley said. “We can’t just say it is good because it might create jobs. That’s not good enough.”