In the Wisc. State House: Deregulation Of, By and for Mining Companies

Deregulation of mining and mine permitting in Wisconsin is smashing its way through the legislature.

Current Republican bills carve giant holes in our already hard-to-enforce legal protections for water, air and wetland quality.

Assembly Bill 426 passed last week in spite of broad opposition from such radical environmental extremists as the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the League of Conservation Voters, Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club. A Senate version is now going ahead.

Florida-based Gogebic Taconite wants to rip a 4-to-8-mile-long open-pit iron mine out of a ridge atop the Penokee Hills south of Lake Superior near the Bad River Band’s reservation. In view of the mine’s threat to Bad River and to Lake Superior, fish stocks, wetlands, groundwater and wild rice beds (from the inevitable leaching of toxic heavy metals from the mine’s enormous volumes of waste), ordinary common sense demands a strengthening of environmental protections — not just from toxic mine runoff, but from mining companies running off with all the riches and no liability for damages.

But common sense was trumped in the WI Assembly. Written partly by the company itself, the scandalous sweetheart deal that is AB 426 gives away the store — the public commons that are the water and the air — by removing the funding and enforcement, or by outright killing essential parts of current state environmental law:

  • It requires the Dept. of Natural Resources to decide on a mining permit within 360 days rather than the current 2-½ years. Astonishingly, if the DNR does not act, the permit is automatically approved rather than denied.
  • It eliminates “contested case hearings,” semi-judicial proceedings that establish legal standing and the quality of evidence for future court challenges to DNR permit decisions. It also bars anyone who isn’t directly injured by a mining operation from bringing lawsuits for mining law or permit violations.
  • It divides occupation tax revenues equally between local governments and the state General Fund. Currently, 100% of this tax goes to local governments leaving pollution-damaged communities a bit more power with which to seek relief from damages.
  • It eliminates up to three $50,000 permit fees that currently go to local governments when a company submits a notice of intent to mine.
  • It caps recovery of the state’s expenses related to permitting a mine at $1.1 million, hamstringing the state’s power to challenge the permit application.
  • It exempts iron mines from regulations pertaining to acid mine drainage, a highly destructive form of water pollution caused by runoff from acidic mine waste sites. 
  • It devastates wetland mitigation rules for iron mines and reduces the amounts and types of mitigation that are currently required. Current law requires wetland mitigation to occur on-site, whereas AB 426 allows mitigation to occur anywhere in the state.
  • It declares that in any conflict between AB 426 and another state environmental law, AB 426 controls. Current law says that in the case of such a conflict the earlier enviro’ rule controls.

Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams has laughed off all the criticism thrown at his pollution-friendly bill, calling it “fear-mongering,” CBS News reported.

 On Jan 28, Kerry Schumann, director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, wrote in the Milwaukee Journal that “Studies conducted on taconite mining in Minnesota and Michigan show that aggressive excavation of taconite and the processing of taconite pellets can cause toxic heavy metals — including arsenic, lead, and mercury — to leach into air and water.” 

With dirty mining proposals targeting Lake Superior’s North Shore in Minnesota and its South Shore in Wisconsin, both of which threaten to destroy its historic standing as the cleanest of the Great Lakes, local communities, municipalities, civic groups, wild game clubs, and eco’, green and justice organizations of every stripe have a stake preventing a triumph of the polluters. 

John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch an anti-war and environmental group in Wisconsin.