By Jason Stein and Lee Bergquist
Gov. Scott Walker signed a measure Monday clearing the way for mining copper and gold in Wisconsin, handing a win to business groups over the proposal's environmental opponents.
In signing Assembly Bill 499 at the Rhinelander airport, the Republican governor repealed a nearly two-decade old state law that essentially barred companies from extracting minerals besides iron because of pollution concerns.
The GOP legislation passed the Senate and Assembly last month without a single Democratic vote and with opposition from a handful of Republicans.
"If there's anywhere in the world that should be able to conduct safe and environmentally sound mining, it should be the Badger State," Walker said in a tweet Monday.
But environmental groups, which made fighting the legislation one of their top priorities this year, said metallic mining is fraught with peril. The chief concern is that mining of sulfide deposits can release acidic material into waters in a process known as acid mine drainage.
"Repealing the ... law does nothing to change the fact that metallic sulfide mining is an unsafe and unproven industry that can't back up its claims," said Dave Blouin, the chairman of the Sierra Club's mining committee in Wisconsin in a statement.
"The governor joins fellow GOP legislators who embrace highly polluting and damaging mining over long-term sustainable development for central and northern Wisconsin."
The law could usher in a new era of mineral mining in Wisconsin, which has deposits of copper, zinc, gold and silver. Mining companies have conducted exploratory drilling in several areas of northern Wisconsin in recent years.
The previous near-ban on non-iron mining was signed into law in 1998 and was driven by concerns about acid mine drainage.
The Senate passed the mining measure in November, 19-14, with all Republicans except Sen. Rob Cowles of Allouez voting for the bill and all Democrats against. The Assembly passed the measure, 53-38, with four Republicans joining all Democrats to oppose it.
Until now, the state's mining moratorium required a mining company to show that another sulfide mine in the United States or Canada operated for at least 10 years and then was closed for 10 years without pollution.
Wisconsin was the only state with such a restriction, which kept mining companies out of the state since Rio Tinto Kennecott closed the Flambeau mine in Ladysmith in 1997 after four years of mining copper, gold and silver.
Supporters of the legislation say new technology allows for safer, cleaner mining that would bring needed jobs to rural areas. They say the legislation won't change the state's environmental rules for mining and won't stop local governments from prohibiting mining in their area.
"This law will begin to bring back the good-paying, family-sustaining, blue-collar jobs that once supported the local economy and communities in the northern part of our state," said Eric Bott, director of the Wisconsin chapter of the free-market group Americans for Prosperity.
But environmentalists say the change wasn't needed because mining companies were already able to come to the state if they could prove that they wouldn't pollute it. They say that opening the door to metallic mining threatens state waterways.
"This law will not result in prosperity for northern Wisconsin and threatens the natural resources that are the foundation of sustainable jobs from tourism, agriculture and our outdoor heritage," Blouin said.
Joining Walker in Rhinelander were four students from Wisconsin who are studying mining or geology in college, according to the Natural Resource Development Association, a pro-mining group that pushed for passage of the legislation.
The students' attendance underscored a point emphasized by supporters of the law during debate this fall on metallic mining: The moratorium effectively barred students and others with an interest in mining from working in the state.
Mining has long been a contentious issue in Wisconsin and that fight has intensified since Republicans took over state government in 2011.
Walker and GOP lawmakers first put forward legislation to boost iron mining, failing to pass it on their first attempt in 2012 and then succeeding in 2013.
Mining company Gogebic Taconite donated $700,000 to a group that helped Republicans survive recall elections in 2011 and 2012 and helped ensure the Senate had the votes to pass the iron mining legislation in 2013.
That legislation made it easier to fill in wetlands for iron mining but Gogebic ultimately decided not to mine in Wisconsin, saying that there were still too many wetlands around a site it had studied near Hurley.
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