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Assembly Republicans finally introduced a sweeping bill to streamline Wisconsin's mining regulations Thursday, unveiling language that calls for state regulators to make a permit decision within a year and limits environmentalists' challenges.
The measure is designed to jump-start Florida-based Gogebic Taconite's plans for an iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. The bill will almost certainly undergo multiple revisions -- Republicans in the state Senate are calling it a starting point -- but it's already triggered one of the fiercest environmental debates the state has seen in more than a decade.
"I don't know how anyone could say with a straight face that this bill doesn't contain huge rollbacks to environmental laws and gut the public input process," said Amber Meyer-Smith, government relations director for the environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin.
Republicans counter they're trying to balance the environment with job creation. Gogebic Taconite has promised the mine will create hundreds of jobs across economically depressed northwestern Wisconsin. At a news conference Thursday, Republicans invoked Wisconsin's rich mining history, pointing out that the Badger State nickname derives from lead miners who were said to burrow like badgers and the state seal includes a drawing of a miner.
"Is the miner on that flag," Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said as he gestured to the banner draped behind him, "just going to be part of our history or part of our future?"
The Penokee Hills run from Michigan's Upper Peninsula through Wisconsin's Iron and Ashland counties, where the unemployment rate is about 10 percent, more than 2 percentage points higher than the state rate.
Gogebic Taconite wants to start by mining a 4 1/2-mile stretch of the hills near Mellen, a city of about 900 people south of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's reservation. Company officials say that phase likely will last at least 35 years, generating about $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue, creating 700 jobs for people in the area and 2,000 ancillary jobs for the region's service and transportation industries.
Republican legislators, anxious to deliver on job creation promises that helped them win election last year, say the mine would energize the state's heavy equipment sector as well, preserving jobs for manufacturers located as far away as Milwaukee.
Conservationists argue the mine would pollute one of the state's most pristine areas. The Bad River tribe fears the mine would contaminate the sensitive sloughs where they hold their traditional rice harvests.
Company officials have put their plans on hold, saying they want assurances from state lawmakers of a definite end point in the state Department of Natural Resources' rigorous mine permitting process, which can take years to play out. Republicans have been huddling on how to streamline the process for most of the last year.
The 183-page bill creates a new set of laws specifically for iron mining. Among its major provisions:
--The DNR would have to approve or deny an iron mine application within 360 days of deeming the application complete. Current state law doesn't lay out a deadline.
--Contested case hearings on DNR permitting decisions would be eliminated. The hearings allow testimony and cross-examination in a quasi-judicial setting; they've been a crucial recourse for conservationists in the past.
--No one who isn't directly injured by a mining operation could bring a lawsuit challenging DNR permit enforcement or alleging violations of mining laws.
--The DNR would have to issue a mining water withdrawal permit even if the applicant can't show the withdrawals won't hurt the public welfare or the quantity or quality of state waters if the agency decides the mine's public benefits exceed the harm.
--Half of the revenue from a state tax on ore sales would go back to the state's general fund. Currently all the money from the tax is distributed to local governments where the ore is mined.
--The bill acknowledges mining will probably result in "adverse impacts" to wetlands but presumes it's necessary.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, called the measure one of the biggest job creation bills the Legislature will pass this session.
"We're talking about generational jobs that will be there for a long time," Fitzgerald said. "This isn't the type of company that will be able to pick up and say, hey, you know what, we're not going to stay in Wisconsin. We're going to do better in China. The iron ore is here in Wisconsin."
Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams said he hadn't seen the bill and had no immediate comment.
Minority Democrats and conservationists called the legislation a license to strip mine that will hurt the state's tourism industry. The Bad River tribe has questioned how many jobs the mine would really create for Wisconsin residents.
"We emphasize that Wisconsin laws meant to protect people and the environment should not be rewritten to benefit a single out-of-state company, especially where there has been no independent analysis of the economic impact ... on the region as a whole," the tribe said.
Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, said in a statement that the Assembly should be commended for releasing legislation that could "pour billions of dollars into our economy."
"The Assembly is showing the leadership needed to grow family-supporting, generational jobs across our state while protecting the environment," he said.
The Assembly jobs committee plans to hold a public hearing on the legislation Wednesday in West Allis, a Milwaukee suburb. Republicans said it makes sense to hold the hearing in southeastern Wisconsin, 300 miles from the mine site, because manufacturers who will benefit from the mine are located there and the committee already held an informational hearing in Hurley in October -- even though the bill hadn't been introduced yet.
Regardless, the legislative process is just beginning. Republicans in the state Senate have created their own committee to study how to best streamline mining regulations. That panel's chairman, Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, said he hadn't reviewed the Assembly bill but believes it could be a "foundation."