Weeks have passed since Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald named a seven-member committee to suggest ways of streamlining the state’s mining rules. Momentum for change stems from an untouched stash of iron ore in northern Wisconsin. Proponents of the project say it promises employment in a job-starved region.Critics fear an intricate web of streams and wetlands that feed into Lake Superior would suffer irreparable impact.
WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence listened in Tuesday to the committee’s first information-gathering session.
The hearing stretched out over three hours.
During much of that time, the seven senators attentively took in what two experts had to say.
First, Ann Coakley.
She heads the Department of Natural Resources’ Bureau of Waste and Materials Management.
One of its tasks is to work with companies interested in mining in Wisconsin.
Coakley says every operation is different from the one before.
“Each of these deposits has a different geology, a different size, different potential environmental impacts. But looking just purely at the size of a mine; a larger mine would have the potential to affect more environmental resources, which could result in more study being needed,” Coakley says.
Coakley was short on information about how long it would take to move the proposed Penokee Hills project, south of Ashland, through the permitting process, because, she says, there is no application.
Still, committee member Senator Robert Cowles of Green Bay questioned her about the potential impacts to the region’s ground water.
“The maps I’ve seen it looks like what they plan to do is cut right through several rivers and I don’t know if these are creeks or, it’s hard to tell; I’d love the committee to go up there and look at the situation. But do you have any preliminary information,” Cowles asks.
“Well there are a lot of wetlands and streams in that area, and it would surely be impacts to wetlands and it’s likely there would be impacts to streams, but that’s only if the company is planning their four-mile-long mine in the location that I’ve seen on preliminary maps,” Coakley says.
Senator Robert Jauch represents the Ashland area.
He says he’s not convinced Wisconsin’s mining law is lacking and therefore a hindrance to new projects.
Instead, Jauch points to Coakley’s department within the DNR, and wonders whether it is understaffed, having only 1 ½ members with mining know-how.
“What would be needed if you need an application in order to assure that the department has adequate staff so that you are responding to the inquiry from the applicant and not delaying other projects because you’re taking staff from working on a landfill project and moving them over to work on a mining project,” Jauch asks.
"It’s just hard to say right now how many we would need, but certainly we would need more staff than we have today; and by the way, when you say one-and-a half, we do have one-and-a-half people who can work on this right now, because they have the expertise, but they actually have different jobs,” Coakley says.
Wisconsin enacted its current mining law in 1973.
Tom Evans’ career with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey stretches back nearly that far.
He says the state crafted its statutes by consensus.
“This was a time when various groups came together; mining companies, local units of government, environmental groups, state agencies to talk about what would be the basic elements of a comprehensive regulatory framework; how could it work among all those groups with such various and different and seemingly opposing viewpoints,” Evans says.
Senator Jon Erpenbach from Middleton pressed Evans for more the historical information.
“Do you think the laws need to be changed,” Erpenbach says.
Evans took a moment to gather his thoughts.
"I think the answer has to be, that it depends on whether or not the other aspects of our regulatory framework are being met – are we protecting the environment, are we enabling local government to interact, are we doing the work of trying to make the best judgment we can about this project," Evans says.
One person quiet throughout most of the hearing was Senator Neal Kedzie of Elkhorn.
He heads the select committee. Kedzie did weigh-in however, calling iron-mining part of Wisconsin’s economy.
"It’s a resource;just like trees and water and everything else that has potential to be used for economic development. Our charge is to look at where it’s possible to streamline certain processes, it doesn’t mean undercutting them or lessening them," Kedzie says.
Although Kedzie plans to host public hearings in various communities, he says the clock is ticking.
He wants to have a bill ready for both houses to consider during the current special legislative session on job creation.