Conservationists Aim to Repeal Wisconsin's Mining Law

Apr 11, 2016

Gogebic Taconite wanted to build a huge iron mine near Lake Superior
Credit Susan Bence

    

The subject of mining is back before the public in Wisconsin. Hundreds of people across the state are expected to testify Monday night at the annual Conservation Congress hearings. They’ll weigh-in on dozens of issues related to how the state manages its natural resources. One item on the agenda is Wisconsin’s divisive new iron mining law.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill in 2013 that relaxed regulations on the mining industry. The measure was custom-made for Gogebic Taconite, a Florida based company that wanted to build a huge iron mine in northern Wisconsin. One Republican who gave an impassioned plea for passage of the bill was the Assembly Speaker, Jeff Fitzgerald.

“We know that this will create hundreds of jobs when they are constructing the mine, generational jobs after the mine is in place. These aren’t jobs that can pick up and go to China or India. The iron ore is in our ground here in Wisconsin,” Fitzgerald says.

Democrats pushed back just as passionately. Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point said she feared construction of the mine would cause monumental damage to the environment – particularly the rich wetlands that dominate the region and feed into Lake Superior.

“Today, I stand before you all in great distress, distress that the Wisconsin Assembly could consider and probably pass a bill with such devastating consequences to our shared natural resources,” Shankland says.

Even though the Legislature approved the bill and Governor Walker signed it into law, Gogebic Taconite in early 2015 dropped its plans to build a huge open-pit mine, after conducting preliminary tests. It didn’t give a reason, but speculation swirled about falling world prices or complicated geology. Yet the new mining law remains on the books. One person who plans to call for its repeal is Carl Sack of Madison.

“The law that was passed applies statewide and really does away with due diligence for mining projects that might come in to the state in the future. There are lots of provisions that make it much easier to fill in wetlands, that set an unreasonable timeline for permitting when you have such a large project such as the one that was proposed for Ashland and Iron counties,” Sack says.

Sack is co-founder of the organization, Madison Action for Mining Alternatives. He says it was instrumental in putting the mining item on the ballot the Conservation Congress will vote on, this year.

The Congress is comprised of citizen-delegates who advise the Natural Resources Board and the Wisconsin DNR on how to responsibly manage the state’s natural resources. Yet Sack cautions the people who hope to reverse the state’s new mining law: the Congress votes are strictly advisory.

“What are the chances of this Legislature repealing the iron mining law? I would say slim and none but it goes on the record and that can be used to build momentum in the future to make it politically difficult for the Legislature not to repeal the law,” Sack says.

The Conservation Congress will hold meetings in every county across the state tonight, and many sportsmen are expected to attend.