Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the legislature are moving quickly to rewrite mining laws that would streamline the permit process for companies like Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTAC) that want to build a series of open-pit mines in the Penokee Hills. GTAC currently has leases for mineral rights on 22,000 acres of the Penokee range covering 22 miles in Ashland and Iron counties. GTAC is a subsidiary of the Cline Group, a coal-mining company based in Florida; this would be the company’s first iron-ore mining project.
Assembly Republicans put forward a closely guarded bill in early December that will streamline the mining-permit process. The traditional public hearing was held in Milwaukee, more than 300 miles from the proposed mine’s location.
Republicans continue to insist that they are not in a hurry to push through mining legislation, and the Assembly is expected to begin debating the bill when members return to the capital, Madison, in late January. Even if passed, the bill would still have to get through the Senate before going to Walker’s desk. The Republicans hold a 20-vote lead in the Assembly but only a one-vote lead in the Senate.
Antimining advocates are scrambling to organize on Facebook group pages such as Citizens Concerned about the proposed Penokee Mine.
Current Wisconsin law requires mining applicants to verify via the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that a similar mine operated in a sulfide ore body in the U.S. or Canada has been operated for 10 years without polluting ground or surface water and that such a mine that has been closed for 10 years can meet the same requirements. So far, mining companies have been unable to meet these conditions. Applicants must also provide detailed plans as well as ample time for the DNR to elicit public comment before drilling begins.
Matt Fifield, managing director of GTAC and the Cline Group, and other GTAC leaders maintain that the Penokee mine would be environmentally safe and insist that their proposed iron-ore mine is a ferrous mine. According to GTAC leadership, iron-ore mining, unlike nonferrous mining, such as copper and nickel, does not use chemicals.
Al Gedicks, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, maintains that GTAC lobbyists are heavily involved with crafting legislation that will streamline the mining-permit process, differentiate between ferrous and nonferrous mining and drastically shorten the public input process. Gedicks is the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.
In the September 11 issue of Z Magazine, Gedicks noted that GTAC goes beyond just public relations trying to prove their claims that taconite mining can be done safely without harming the environment. “They are heavily involved in crafting legislation that would prevent the public and the state’s Indian nations from challenging any of these claims by excluding them from participation in the mine-permitting process.”
A review of public records show that in 2010, Christopher Cline, the owner of GTAC and one of his execs contributed $10,000 to Walker’s campaign and that Cline and others gave almost $30,000 to other candidates involved with the mining issue such as State Rep. Mark Honadel of South Milwaukee.
During his weekly radio address on October 27, Walker pushed the Republican-controlled Senate to move quickly on new mining legislation that would “create certainty in the regulatory process.” He noted, “One mining company is proposing more than 700 jobs that will pay salaries of over $60,000 in an area of the state that needs it most.” He predicted that the mining project would create more than 3,000 construction-related jobs over a two-year period and more than 2,800 jobs throughout the state in mine-related industries. Presumably Walker’s job predictions were taken from a study by NorthStar Economics, which was commissioned by the Cline Group. “We could be looking at the biggest Wisconsin economic development project in years.… We need the legislature to act now!”
Walker’s urgency may be motivated by recall efforts aimed at him. United Wisconsin reports that they have already gathered more than enough signatures needed to force a recall vote, but a judge has ordered the election committee to first vet those signatures.
The presence of iron ore in the Penokee range is not recent news. The Penokee-Gogebic Iron Range has been home to underground mining since 1886. Cheaper-to-mine foreign ores and open-pit mining in Minnesota shut down the last Wisconsin mine in 1965. The mountains are still home, however, to more than 20 percent of the United States’s taconite reserves, a lower-quality iron ore that must be extracted via open-pit mining, a form of mountaintop removal. These reserves have suddenly become attractive to mining companies eager to feed increased world demand for minerals and politicians desperate to create jobs in an economic downturn.
The Bad River Tribe presented 10 guidelines for mining legislation to Walker in September. They are:
1. The definition of iron mining should be clearly set forth to exclude any project proposal that has the potential to cause acid mine drainage.
2. The completeness of iron mining–permit applications should be clearly defined and the burden of preparing and submitting a complete application should be entirely on the permit applicant.
3. The permitting time frame should be reasonable, flexible and consistent with federal agency time frames. It should also provide sufficient time for the DNR, the public, federal agencies, and affected Indian tribes, to fully review and participate in the permitting process.
4. Wetland protection standards should be maintained and the federal/state partnership in the environmental review process under state and federal law should not be jeopardized.
5. Federal clean water act implementation by DNR should be corrected and not weakened.
6. There should be contested case hearings to allow full participation by interested parties, including Indian tribes.
7. There should be no preemption of local control.
8. Citizen suits should be maintained to make sure permit provisions and legal restrictions on new mines will be enforced.
9. Consultation with Indian tribes by the DNR should be required as part of the permitting process.
10. Interested party financing should be provided for the contested case hearing process.