After Hearing, Questions Remain About Fate Of Mining Bill

A bill pertaining to iron mining, which Republican lawmakers say could bring jobs to northern Wisconsin, has an uncertain future in the state Legislature.

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Republicans in the state Senate said that they’re working toward a compromise on a bill that would jump-start an iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin. However, there are still questions about what will appear in the final legislation.

Assembly Republicans passed a bill last month that requires a permitting decision within a year of filing an application and eliminates contested case hearings. A Senate mining committee released a different bill on Monday, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald rejected it and wants to move the Assembly measure instead.

With two measures currently in the Legislature and uncertainty continuing, some residents and stakeholders packed a hearing room at the state Capitol on Friday to speak about the proposal.

State lawmakers took more than six hours of testimony in the Joint Finance Committee. Some activists brought bottles and jars of water to raise awareness of their concerns over environmental regulation changes in the bill.

Executives of Gogebic Taconite, the company that wants to construct a $1.5-billion mine just south of Lake Superior, said that all they’re looking for is certainty.

“Businesses like ours need to know the rules of the road and when we’ll have an answer, whether it’s yes or whether it’s no,” said Bill Williams, of Gogebic Taconite. “And I’m sure you can appreciate how difficult it is to obtain financing for a project of this size if it is an open-ended approval process.”

Williams said that they respect the desire of some to institute environmental protections.

“We welcome environmental standards that protect the future, ensure a safe process with complete reclamation,” he said. “OK, I’m not an attorney. I’m a mining engineer, but I’m confident we can meet the standards of both Wisconsin and the federal level.”

Some northern Wisconsin residents, including Mike Balber, said that it’s the environmental parts of the current bill they have a problem with.

“This bill is about lessening environmental standards,” Balber said. “If anything, we should be thinking generations ahead that we should be tightening environmental regulations.”

Some activists said that the environmental concerns remain paramount to them.

“If you want certainty, you have to be certain that citizens feel they’ve been heard, their rights are protected and they know the water they drink is safe. That’s all people are asking for,” said Jennifer Geigerich, of the League of Conservation Voters.

During the public hearing, Republican and Democratic members on the committee sparred over specific regulation changes in the bill and why they were necessary to bring the mine to the state. However, it was still unclear what will happen to the legislation.

The current version of the bill has passed the Assembly, but doesn’t have enough votes to pass the Senate.

Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz and Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch are drafting a substitute bill and plan to hold a listening session on it in Platteville on Saturday. The meeting will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Student Center.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald said that they will review it and discuss what’s next.

Republicans hold only a one-vote majority in the Senate, but Schultz, a moderate Republican who sat on the mining committee, has said he won’t vote for the Assembly measure.