Wisconsin stepped to the forefront of the nation in contentious partisan politics over the past year, with a legislative assault on collective bargaining rights of public employees, major budget slashing and the passing of the country’s most restrictive voter ID law.
With a Republican-controlled state legislature, Gov. Scott Walker and his agenda marched lock-step together into the law books. But one issue where the tide peaked was over a bill that would have gutted the state’s laws governing iron mining.
The bill was a classic example of changing laws to satisfy one company’s needs. Florida-based Gogebic Taconite said it would build a $1.5 billion, four-mile long open pit mine across two counties in northern Wisconsin. It promised the mine would bring 600-700 jobs at the pit and thousands of spin-off jobs for the area, if the state would change its mining regulatory process. Its lawyers helped Wisconsin lawmakers write them the bill that would satisfy its needs.
The mining company, in a similar vein to what is currently being said about uranium deposits in Arizona, said it would be one of the largest and most profitable digs in the country.
The company essentially wanted to lock the public out of the debate and speed up the permitting process to take less than a year. Wisconsin has held firm to the belief that mines can be challenged in contested case hearings in court by citizens who claim they would be affected. In the case of sulfide iron ore mining, that can have a wide reach since water quality issues are the main culprit of mines. In the case of the Gogebic plan, that would include river tributaries and Lake Superior itself.
The Gogebic bill would have also changed the law to allow the mine to fill in lakes and harm state-declared natural areas.
The debate over whether to mine or not to mine generally doesn’t change. The main issues are water quality, economic impact and (drum roll please) jobs. Mining advocates of course tout the number of jobs that a mine creates; family sustainable jobs, they say. Reality says, however, that mining jobs are a specialty and draw unemployed miners from elsewhere and that few of the jobs are actually held by locals.
The last time iron mining was disputed in the Badger State, the decade-long debate was over the Crandon Mine was settled after two of the 11 Native American tribes in the state agreed to pay $16.5 million to keep the land preserved and not mined. After that, Wisconsin was referred to by the industry as the most hostile state toward mining in the country.
The bill this time, of course, would have changed all that. Current law also stands that any mining company proposal would have to show that if there’s a mine operating anywhere in the world that doesn’t potentially harm the environment, it must emulate that operation. Gogebic, of course, balked at the cost of all that work and wanted those rules changed.
While most Republicans in the Legislature cow-towed to Gogebic’s wants, one Republic senator, Dale Schultz, single-handedly held up the bill in an effort to come to a compromise. That didn’t happen as his colleagues stood firm with Gogebic and the bill failed by one vote in early March.
Days later Gogebic announced that it would no longer pursue the mine and would go elsewhere.
Meanwhile, mining has again intruded on state residents, but in a more unlikely way. Two mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula were left without power last year after a lightning strike took out a major transformer in northern Wisconsin. Now, the state’s monopoly transmission line company—American Transmission Company, owned by the state’s utilities—is proposing that $700 million be spent in upgrading transmission lines that serve the mines. Its plan would have utility ratepayers in Wisconsin pay for the construction.
Citizen utility advocates say the mines should pick up the tab for such a direct benefit. The plans have just hit the table and will soon be bouncing around Wisconsin utility regulatory agency.
(Wisconsin protest photos can be found here.)