By Lee Bergquist
Gov. Scott Walker on Monday signed a bill that rewrites iron mining laws and could pave the way for construction of a $1.5 billion open pit mine in northern Wisconsin.
Walker made stops in Rhinelander, where he signed the bill, and later in Milwaukee, at P&H Mining Equipment, to underscore the economic benefits of an iron ore mine for the mining equipment sector in southeastern Wisconsin.
The legislation was a major victory for Walker and Republicans who pushed several versions over the past year to address objections.
The measure relaxes environmental protections for iron mining -- but not other forms of mining -- and provides more clarity to the state process of reviewing an iron ore mine application.
Still, opening a mine is far from a done deal. A new mine would require extensive evaluation from state and federal regulators before permits would be issued. Lawsuits are also likely.
Democrats and environmentalists said the changes have the potential to cause environmental harm -- especially to streams, wetlands and groundwater -- from the removal of millions of tons of rock. They also say Republicans have oversold the economic benefits of a project that could be built because of the legislation.
Backers say the bill keeps many safeguards in place, and they emphasized that no state pollution standards were weakened.
Walker signed the bill at Oldenburg Group Inc., a manufacturer in Rhinelander. Later in the day, he stopped at P&H, which has been making mining equipment since 1893.
"This sends a message, not just to those in the mining industry, but to everyone that we are going to find a reasonable way to break down barriers that have made it hard to create jobs in the past," Walker said. "We are going to make it easier to create jobs and economic opportunity in the future."
Flanked by Republican legislators and others, Walker complimented lawmakers who he said made "substantial changes" to the legislation designed to protect natural resources.
The state's largest business lobby, which played an instrumental role in getting the bill through the Legislature, praised Walker's signing of the law.
"A new day has dawned in Wisconsin," said Scott Manley, vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. "Now a mining company will have a fair chance at getting a permit to mine for iron if the company can demonstrate that it will protect the environment."
Myriad hurdles remain
Gogebic Taconite, a unit of Florida-based Cline Resource and Development, pushed for changes in mining laws shortly after representatives of the company announced their plans in 2011 for an iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The mine would operate for at least 35 years and run for about four miles. Gogebic says the mine would generate 700 jobs, but all told would create more than 2,800 jobs in trucking, housing and other industries.
Company representatives did not attend the bill signing gatherings. A spokesman said they were working on early details of the project at their headquarters in Hurley.
Despite the big legislative win, the company still faces myriad hurdles.
Gogebic would need permits from the state Department of Natural Resources, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is not subject to the state deadlines imposed in the bill.
Further, critics say the changes in the law may run contrary to the state's Public Trust Doctrine, which generally guarantees public access to navigable waters of the state. In the 1990s, environmentalists used state courts to challenge construction of a copper mine along the Flambeau River, saying the mine would harm two rare clam species and a rare species of dragonfly.
A mine also would have to meet water quality standards of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Bad River's reservation is downstream on the shore of Lake Superior. In addition, the Bad River might argue that state officials failed to consult with them before making changes in state law that could affect their reservation.
"I think it will get worked out," Walker said of the possible legal challenges.
Ann Coakley, the DNR's top mining regulator, said Gogebic will have to do considerable work before it submits an application.
Gogebic has discussed with the DNR conducting exploratory drilling this spring. It could also ask to dig bulk loads of ore to test how the ore could be processed into taconite, she said.
The company would also have to file a pre-application notice spelling out details of the project at least one year before a formal application is submitted. Once Gogebic applies to the DNR, the agency has 420 days to make a decision, although the process can be put on hold in some cases.
Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) said that iron mining proposed by Gogebic won't begin for seven to 10 years, if it survives the permitting process.
Cullen said the job projections are unrealistic, based on comments from members of the Wisconsin Mining Association and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"Supporters of the new law, including the governor, are completely misleading the people of Wisconsin -- especially those looking for jobs -- by saying a mining operation could begin in as little as two years," Cullen said.
According to Cullen, the pre-application process will take two to three years and the time needed by the Army Corps to review a permit could take about four years. And that doesn't count legal challenges, which would add more time, he said.
"We haven't set a timeline," Walker said Monday. "I said a few years. I didn't say a dozen. I didn't say two. It's pretty wide open."
(c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel