There are two sections of the Assembly's open-pit mining bill that environmental advocates were hoping not to see when the Senate unveiled its version.

They found both when the bill was made public Monday.

"The protection of groundwater and wetlands were our two main concerns," says Anne Sayers, program director with the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. "That was our beef last time and none of it was fixed."

Both the Assembly version (AB 426) and the Senate version (LRB 4035) of the controversial mining bill include the same provisions that would negatively impact groundwater and wetlands located in close proximity to mines, critics say.

Wording in both bills would allow the state Department of Natural Resources, when issuing or modifying a mining permit, to "grant an exemption from a groundwater quality standard and establish an alternative concentration limit to a groundwater quality standard."

Likewise, the bills would permit practices, including the disposal or storage of mining wastes or materials that "would have a significant adverse impact on wetlands."

Dave Blouin, mining committee chairman for the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club, described the exemptions to groundwater and wetlands standards as "troubling."

"Mining on this scale will require huge amounts of land to be destroyed because the amount of waste produced is so huge," Blouin says. "Exemptions allow them to put the waste anywhere. It's cheaper and easier."

Although no company has yet applied for a mining permit in Wisconsin, the drive to rework the state's mining law got under way in earnest last spring, when officials with Florida-based Gogebic Taconite started"> lobbying lawmakers to shorten the state's permitting process from roughly seven years to less than a year.

The company, which has an interest in opening a $1.5 billion mine in northern Wisconsin, later was found to have had a hand in writing an early draft of the legislation. That effort died, only to be brought back with two separate bills by Republicans leaders in each house at the start of this legislative session.

The proposed mine would be located near what is believed to be a 22-mile swath of iron ore in Iron and Ashland counties. Mining company officials have said phase one of the project would create a four-mile-long open pit in Iron County, stopping near the Ashland County border.

Blouin says an open-pit mine of that size would create about 2,500 acres, or roughly four square miles, of waste. That includes the tailings, or byproduct produced from processing the ore, and the rock and earth waste created from the act of digging into the earth.

Blouin says similar mines in Michigan and Minnesota have created groundwater and surface water pollution problems. Specifically, state agencies have levied fines after selenium was found in streams and lakes in Michigan and arsenic was found in groundwater in both states.

"With the exemptions in this bill, they can now put that waste anywhere they want," Blouin says. "That could be anywhere ... a forest, river, wetland or stream."




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