21st Century Mining in Wisconsin
By Senator Tom Tiffany and Representative Scott Suder
When the new legislative session began, we made it clear that one of our top priorities would be passing a mining bill that could lead to the creation of thousands of well-paying, family supporting jobs. We introduced Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) and Assembly Bill 1 to designate a separate class of mining for taconite, a form of iron ore. As authors, our goal was to ensure that this legislation maintain Wisconsin’s high environmental standards and provide certainty for an applicant. Under current law, applicants are faced with a cumbersome process that includes no set time frame for an up or down decision, which is a deterrent to investing in Wisconsin and creating mining jobs.
Since last session, the topic of mining has been widely debated and vetted in both the Legislature and by the media. Over the past two sessions, there have been six public and six informational hearings held by both Republican and Democrat-led committee chairs throughout the state. Within those hearings, public testimony exceeded 45 hours and the total amount of testimony exceeded 70 hours.
During the joint public hearing in January, my colleagues and I heard from a number of people all across the state on both sides of this issue. However, some of the most powerful testimony came from northern residents, including local high school students. These students reminded committee members that when they graduate from high school many of them will have no choice, but to leave the community they have called home their entire lives in order to find employment. We heard from Rhonda Olkonen, an educator from Hurley whose husband has been working in an oil field in North Dakota and is only able to come home every four to six weeks. Rhonda’s husband would be qualified to work at a mining site such as the one proposed, but due to the lack of jobs in northern Wisconsin, has had to look for work out west. Rhonda and her family, like so many others in this part of the state, would welcome the jobs a mine could create and the opportunity to put residents back to work.
This 21st Century Mining legislation does not reduce air quality standards, surface water standards or safe drinking water standards. Wisconsin’s strict standards for groundwater quality are expressly applied in this legislation. In addition, this bill does not allow for an increase in limits on emissions or pollutants, and the Public Trust Doctrine still applies. Also, it should be noted that Wisconsin cannot change federal standards. At the end of the day, the Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers, along with the Environmental Protection Agency will be conducting a thorough review of permit applications, environmental impact reports, reclamation reports, among other requirements. These regulators will have to approve permits that meet established standards.
We are proud of the legislation that we introduced with Representative Honadel, Representative Williams, and a number of other legislative colleagues. We took the time to listen to opponents of this legislation as well as members on both sides of the aisle. As a result, we introduced and adopted a number of concepts from Senator Cullen and his committee hearings. We also introduced amendments that strengthened the already strong environmental protections included in the bill. Some of the amendments, among others, include requiring additional testing during the waste characterization process, ensuring that the Army Corps of Engineers is thoroughly involved throughout the process, prohibiting potential impacts to lake beds and trout streams, and specifying that the Investment and Local Impact Fund, which makes payments to local governments in the area affected by the mine, give preference to private sector economic development projects when dispersing the funds.
Last week, the State Senate took up Senate Bill 1 for debate and passed the bill on a 17-16 vote. This Thursday, the State Assembly will take up this legislation. Upon passage, the bill will move to Governor Walker’s desk for signature.
Mining has been a part of Wisconsin’s rich history and heritage. We have a miner on our state flag, and that miner has been laid off for far too long. The mining legislation that we have passed will ensure that we can use our abundant natural resources in an environmentally-responsible manner to bring prosperity back to Wisconsin and put that miner back to work.