Sunday, May 15, 2011

Draft legislation on iron mining debated

By DANIELLE KAEDING Ashland Daily Press, Friday, May 13, 2011

The possibility of an iron mine in northwestern Wisconsin is becoming more real with each passing day for area residents. A bill is currently being drafted by State Sen. Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee, and State Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, to provide a separate piece of legislation regulating iron mining in Wisconsin.

Legislation proponents say laws currently on the books need clarity and definitive timelines as part of the state permitting process. Those more wary of the bill being drafted worry that such legislation may reduce public input or weaken environmental standards. State Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, said the bill does include fewer opportunities for public comment.

“And fewer requirements for the mining company, a lot of relaxing of (language) — instead of “must,” it’s “will attempt to” or “will strive to” — it’s a horrible, horrible bill,” Bewley said.

One such example is the language used addressing standards for approval of a metallic mining permit. Under current law, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which regulates mines in the state, must issue a mining permit if it finds the proposed mine “will not endanger public health, safety or welfare.” However, the bill currently being drafted states a project must be permitted if “the proposed iron mining is not likely to result in substantial adverse impacts to public health, safety, or welfare.” The Daily Press obtained a copy of the draft legislation from its news partner Wisconsin Public Radio.

Meanwhile, Bewley contended that development of the bill has been kept secret. The Democratic Assemblywoman felt there was an attempt to “ram” the bill through the legislative process.

“Fortunately, they’re pulling back from that,” Bewley said, noting that a hearing that appeared set for Monday on the bill is no longer taking place. However, a staffer from Zipperer’s office cautioned Thursday that reports of a Monday hearing on the draft legislation were premature, adding the bill is not yet ready for introduction.

At any rate, Bewley said there are differences between the legal requirement and what is good government regarding the manner in which the legislation has been drafted.

“What is happening in this process are the fewest people representing the most powerful companies,” Bewley argued.

Other environmental organizations who have seen the draft legislation have expressed concern and disgust about the bill’s contents. Among them is Dave Blouin, chair of the Wisconsin Mining Committee for the Sierra Club.

“This legislation is a gun to the head of Wisconsin legislators in the guise of economic development,” said Blouin.

He said the draft bill appears to amount to a loss of local control in area municipalities.

“Which is really, I just think, terrible policy,” Blouin said.

Michele Wheeler agreed. She’s executive director of the Bad River Watershed Association, which promotes the healthy interconnection of people and natural communities in the watershed. Wheeler said the draft bill exemplifies a complete disregard for public input. She cited the current law which allows people the opportunity to obtain a contested case hearing if they feel aggrieved of a DNR decision under metallic mining laws. Under draft legislation, citizens wouldn’t be entitled to such a hearing.

The bill also does not provide for citizen suits related to iron mining. Furthermore, Wheeler said the draft bill on mining undermines the state’s existing environmental standards. She said the treatment of water in the bill is “appalling.”

“The bill establishes a new permit for surface water withdrawals — groundwater withdrawals. It outlines some general provisions that need to be met like protecting public health and safety and not degrading water quality or quantity,” Wheeler said. “But, the catch is that mining companies don’t even need to meet those basic requirements. If they can mitigate water usage, they still get a permit.”

Furthermore, she noted existing laws preventing mine waste close to rivers and lakes.

“It’s a good idea not to dump mine waste really close to streams because streams flood,” she said. “When they flood, they pick up materials that are in the floodplain and they drop them off somewhere downstream.”

However, the bill currently being drafted would not prohibit an iron mining waste site within a floodplain, within 300 feet of a river or stream or within 1,000 feet of a lake.

Casey Eggleston of the Nature Conservancy said there appear to be many water protections that have been rolled back in the draft legislation.

“At first blush, it does look like it’s fairly major changes to the mining codes in Wisconsin. It looks like there are pretty significant changes to timelines for doing environmental impact statements, major changes to the protections that the rivers, the lakes, the streams and groundwater all have around the site,” Eggleston said, who is the state government relations coordinator for the Nature Conservancy.

The bill would require the DNR to act on an application for an iron mining permit no more than 300 days after the application is considered to be complete. Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams said the 300-day timeline outlined for permitting an iron mine doesn’t include all the prior work that must be done.

“It’s not anywhere near that,” Williams said. “It’s still going to be years ahead of time doing the studies, doing the groundwater studies, the surface water studies, the biology studies — even the archaeology. All those studies are still having to take place. From what I understand in the legislation, once we have taken all those chapters while working with the DNR in developing these sections each study becomes a chapter in the EIR, which is the impact report that we generate.”

Williams felt the legislation still being worked on would not weaken laws currently on the books.

“I don’t get that impression,” Williams said. “This is being proposed by and sponsored by several of the elected officials. Although we would strongly support any attempts to separate the mining of the iron away from a sulfide deposit — up to that point, until they actually come out and make their proclamation or statements, I don’t feel comfortable that it’s our place as a mining company to step on any toes.”

The mining company president said Gogebic Taconite has been asked for opinions and how people can help bring their proposed mining operation to fruition. When asked about concerns posed over opportunity for public comment under the new legislation, Williams felt there has been “constant contact” with the public and the DNR throughout the entire process thus far.

State Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said the Legislature needs extra time to evaluate the bill prior to it receiving a hearing in the Wisconsin Senate or Assembly. The Democratic senator said it’s clear the Republican-controlled Legislature and administration have the ability to rush any legislation. However, he’s been trying to get his Republican colleagues to “push the pause button” on consideration of the legislation. Jauch said everyone realizes that the proposed iron mine could be an “incredible game-changer” for northwestern Wisconsin’s economy.

“I think there are ways to provide the certainty that the company (GTAC) needs that the (permitting) process will not be never-ending,” Jauch said. “But, I think that all can be done without weakening the standards.”

Attempts to reach DNR officials and legislation sponsors for comment were unsuccessful Thursday.

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