By Jason Stein and Patrick Marley
Assembly Republicans sent Gov. Scott Walker a bill Thursday that could clear the way for a miles-long iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin, handing the GOP governor a victory that eluded him last year.
Walker's signing of the measure would clear the way for a mining company to proceed with an exploration process Republicans say could lead to a mine starting within four years. But litigation appears all but certain, and that could block it or greatly delay it.
"On behalf of the unemployed skilled workers in our state who will benefit from the thousands of mining-related jobs over the next few years, I say thank you for passing a way to streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining in Wisconsin," Walker said in a statement.
Democrats said the measure would lead to environmental degradation and argued Republicans were taking the wrong approach to improving the economy.
"It is not the economy of the future," said Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau). "It is the economy of the past. We are repeating the mistakes of the 19th century. . . . We are going backwards in this."
The measure passed 58-39, with all of the "yes" votes coming from Republicans and all of the "no" votes coming from Democrats. Rep. Don Pridemore (R-Erin), who is running for state schools superintendent, did not vote on the measure.
One of the proposal's lead sponsor's, Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee), said that the mine could bring many hundreds of jobs to northern Wisconsin as well as Milwaukee-area manufacturers of mining equipment and parts, such as Joy Global Inc., Monarch Corp., Super Steel Corp. and Caterpillar Inc., which purchased South Milwaukee-based mining equipment maker Bucyrus International in 2011. Honadel said the legislation could accomplish all that while protecting a region rich in streams and wetlands.
"We wouldn't put our name on it if we didn't think it would be safe," he said.
Democrats pointed to environmental concerns such as those highlighted in a Journal Sentinel report this week. An Illinois coal mine owned by the same investor who is trying to develop the mine in Wisconsin has come under fire by Illinois' pollution control agency for failing to adequately address long-standing groundwater problems.
"The facts are that this mining company has done far too little to clean up water in Illinois. . . . Think if we have to read this kind of story in Wisconsin instead of Illinois," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha).
The bill, one of the Republicans' biggest priorities this session, eases numerous environmental safeguards, cuts red tape and simplifies the state's permitting process. The Senate passed the bill, 17-16, on Feb. 27.
Republicans hailed the vote in the Assembly as a way to boost the economy in an impoverished region and other corners of the state. But legal challenges to the legislation and the proposed mine might not be far off, with the chairman of the nearby Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, also known as Ojibwe, vowing Thursday to use "every avenue of resistance" to oppose them. At a Capitol news conference, Bad River Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. was joined by leaders of other Ojibwe bands as well as members of Ho-Chunk, Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee tribes.
"We're talking about our homes," Wiggins said. "We have nowhere to run, nowhere to relocate to if contamination occurs."
The site is in the Bad River watershed and upstream from the reservation of the Bad River band, which has been given authority by federal officials to regulate water quality of those upstream. Wiggins said his tribe would use lawsuits, its regulatory authority and grass-roots resistance to fight the mine.
"We stand ready to fight and resist this effort to the bitter end, until the mining company leaves," Wiggins said.
A small number of protesters jeered Republicans as they left the Assembly floor.
Thursday's session also marked the first real test of an agreement between Republicans and Democrats to put limits on debate, and lawmakers passed it easily.
For years, Assembly sessions have gone into the early morning hours, especially when dealing with controversial legislation. Both sides pledged in January to cut back on late nights. Before Thursday's debate, they agreed to discuss the bill for no more than nine and a half hours. They debated it for slightly less than that and adjourned around 6:30 p.m.
The proposed mine would create about 29 million tons of waste rock and tailings a year, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Environmentalists are concerned that waste could contain sulfide minerals that could pollute wetlands, streams and groundwater. Sulfides can be a source of acid mine drainage when they interact with air and water.
Supporters of the mine have responded that federal records show the Bad River band is grappling with its own violations of water quality standards at the tribe's wastewater treatment system serving residents of Odanah in Ashland County. Those violations include excessive levels of E. coli and phosphorus, as well as periods when the tribe failed to report data.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) acknowledged the strong possibility of a lawsuit. But he said that with one of the largest iron deposits in North America, state officials should use mineral resources to spur investment and employment to economically challenged northern counties. "There is a very good chance that this is going to end up in the court. But let's talk about what will happen if a mine does come -- thousands and thousands of good jobs," Vos said.
Gogebic, a unit of Florida-based Cline Resource and Development, is proposing to construct a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The mine would operate for at least 35 years and run for about four miles atop an iron-rich ridge. Gogebic says the mine would generate 700 jobs but would spin off far more than that in trucking, housing and other industries.
Honadel said he had faith in state and federal regulators and the mining company to ensure any mine in Wisconsin is run safely.
Referring to the problems in Illinois, Honadel noted that the Cline subsidiary had purchased an underground Illinois mine in 2009 from the coal-mining arm of ExxonMobil. It was ExxonMobil that had polluted the groundwater, but the parties agreed it was the responsibility of the new owner to clean up sulfate, iron, manganese and total dissolved solids that had leached into groundwater.
Documents show the Cline subsidiary discussed at length with Illinois EPA officials their plans for the cleanup of the site and the expectations of regulators, before the company purchased the mine from ExxonMobil.
Honadel said it was praiseworthy of the Cline group to take on that responsibility.
Backers of the bill say it updates state laws that put up roadblocks for companies that wanted to tap Wisconsin's mineral resources.
Gogebic demanded the changes in the bill and helped write the legislation. The company said it needed more certainty about the state's review process, with their supporters pointing to the failure a decade ago by developers to build a mine near Crandon as an example of a regulatory system that didn't work.
Republicans such as Honadel and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) insisted there are adequate environmental protections and that regulators at the state Department of Natural Resources would not grant a mining permit unless an applicant can show it has a plan that won't harm the ecosystem.
Rep. Fred Clark (D-Sauk City) said GOP lawmakers were missing a chance to properly balance the state's environment with the jobs that mining could provide.
"How much do we have to give away to get this mining company to come and dig a big hole in the ground?" Clark said. "How much of our natural resources do we have to give away? How much do we have to give away of our long-standing tradition of protecting our air and water and streams and lakes and wetlands?"
The vote came one year and one day after the Senate rejected similar mining legislation by a single vote. The defeat then led Gogebic to say it was abandoning the project.
Since then, the landscape has changed. Republicans now control the Senate 18-15 instead of 17-16, and they could afford to lose the vote of Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center). His defection caused the bill to fail last year.
Democrats argued the bill would violate the state constitution's public trust doctrine by allowing waterways to be filled. That claim opens the possibility of a lawsuit in state court, in addition to an expected suit in federal court on other grounds.
The bill would speed up the time for regulators to issue iron mining permits and would ease some environmental requirements, including allowing the destruction of wetlands if other wetlands are established in their place.
The bill addresses only iron mining; other types of mining would not be affected. The legislation also would require the DNR to decide whether to issue a permit within 420 days, with a possible 60-day extension. Regulators and a mining company could establish a longer time frame if both sides agreed more time was needed.
There is no time limit for issuing permits currently. Many Democrats agree a time limit is needed, but say it should be longer than what Republicans want.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must also approve mines, and typically the state and federal agencies have worked on environmental reviews together.
Opponents of the legislation contend the state would be setting such a tight timeline that the Army Corps would conduct a separate review -- one that would ultimately prove more costly and time-consuming for mining companies.
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