Senate Dems plan to resurrect mining bill, balance environmental and economic needs
Post by Christie Taylor on 8/3/2012 9:30am
As the first official act of the new Senate majority, state Democrats are planning to resurrect a controversial bill to streamline the mine permitting process that was abandoned last spring, this time with more balance of economic and environmental interests.
Janesville Democrat Tim Cullen is heading the new Senate Select Committee on Mining, resurrecting a committee disbanded by former Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald this spring. Cullen said Thursday the committee will work to get a new bill written by the end of the year.
The committee co-chair is Democrat Bob Jauch, who represents the area containing the iron-rich Penokee Hills. It was in that region that Florida-based Gogebic Taconite proposed building a $1.5 billion iron mine last year, but only if state mining laws could be changed to add “clarity” to the permitting process. While Democrats agreed the permitting process is out of date, and residents in Ashland County were eager for the potential for jobs in the struggling region, many groups, including the Bad River Chippewa, were strongly opposed to the original bill for water quality exemptions it gave iron mines, stricter limitations on public input in the process, and deadlines that might have forced the DNR to approve a permit too quickly or out of synch with federal permitting timelines.
In June, Governor Scott Walker appointed Wisconsin Mining Association head Tim Sullivan to spearhead the research and crafting of another mining bill, giving him a Department of Administration position and authorizing him to hire a consulting firm to assist. George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former Department of Natural Resources secretary, has said he’s seen Sullivan approaching the issue with greater deliberation and environmental sensitivity this time around.
News of Democrats’ efforts to resurrect the bill comes after last week’s revelation that Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying group, had urged Sullivan to discontinue discussions with Democrats and environmentalists on a new mining bill until after the November elections. In the letter, WMC senior vice president James Buchen suggested the Republicans were likely to regain control of the Senate at that point.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce had lobbied in favor of the Assembly version of the bill (AB 426) and somewhat modified Senate version (SB 488), but against a compromise version coauthored by Jauch and Republican Dale Schultz (SB 542). Generally, Republicans and business groups supported the first two bills, touted by Republicans as one of their main job creation efforts of the session, while environmental groups, Democrats, and Schultz opposed them.
The Jauch-Schultz compromise had more opportunities for public input, and kept intact most of the environmental protections that the original bill made mining-specific exceptions to, but never made it to a vote because, in March, Gogebic Taconite president Bill Williams withdrew his company’s bid. Williams said the Legislature’s failure to pass a bill had sent his company a clear anti-mining message. All future action on mining was rescheduled and then suspended for the rest of the legislative session.
According to the state’s lobbying data, WMC registered as spending 31 percent of its time lobbying for the Assembly bill between January and June, or 656 hours. The previous six months, July through December of 2011, WMC lobbyists spent 17 percent of their time, or 385 hours. Even now, WMC Environmental Policy Director Scott Manley has said that any dilution of the provisions in the Republican-backed bill could “scuttle” any hope of coaxing Gogebic Taconite to resume their Penokee Hills project.
In a press release, Jauch condemned the WMC letter as discouraging transparency and due legislative process. “WMC begins the letter by making it clear that Gogebic Taconite should have the final say on any mining regulatory bill,” he said. “They don't want compromise. They are afraid of it.”
Cullen told the Superior Telegram Thursday that he expected the committee to meet within the next two or three weeks, and would hold public listening sessions about Gogebic Taconite’s proposal. No new legislation can be introduced until January, and, in the meantime, the November 6 general election could shift the balance of power yet again.
Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) covers science, environment, and, depending on the season, state politics for dane101. She verbs a lot of nouns, including rollerskates, radio, and Kurt Vonnegut. A Madison native, she's not sure she'll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that's just fine by her. Contact her at email@example.com.