SENATE (copy) (copy)

Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Republican from northern Wisconsin: “We want Wisconsin to have a high bar for making sure that we protect the environment, and anyone that wants to come here and mine in Wisconsin, they’re going to have to meet those standards.”

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Economic gains can be made without jeopardizing Wisconsin's environment, the authors of a bill that would promote mining activity in the state argued on Friday. 

But conservation groups and tribal leaders said the legislation would put Wisconsin's long-term environmental integrity at risk in exchange for short-term profits.

"I believe there’s room for all. It’s a big state. We can do all these things and we can do them safely without intruding on each other," said Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. "I know that we can do this safely." 

Tiffany argued the more economic development that comes to the state, the more money will be available in the state budget to fund environmental protection and stewardship programs. 

"Both of them go hand in hand," he said.

The Assembly labor committee heard testimony on the legislation on Friday, a week after the Senate Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee advanced the bill with several amendments attached.

The bill, introduced by Tiffany and Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, would end an effective moratorium on sulfide mining in the state. 

Under current law, a mining company must prove a sulfide mine can operate for 10 years and be closed for another 10 without polluting groundwater or surface waters with acid rock drainage. That legislation was passed with near-unanimous, bipartisan support in 1998 and signed into law by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Opponents of the new legislation are concerned with the removal of the so-called "prove it first" requirement. 

"With all that’s at stake, how can we not ask a mining company to prove that they can operate safely in Wisconsin before handing out a mining permit?" asked Michael Kuhr, vice chairman of Wisconsin Trout Unlimited. 

The "prove it first" law has been "safeguarding our woods and waters" for 20 years, Kuhr said, adding that the proposed legislation is a "risky proposal" that could jeopardize agriculture, tourism and outdoor recreation in Wisconsin.

"We cannot ruin this world for our babies, for our kids, for our grandkids, so that we might have wealth," said Menominee Nation chairman Gary Besaw. "Passing this bill would amount to nothing more than a corporate handout at the cultural, financial, environmental expense of Wisconsin residents and counties."

There are no financial incentives for mining companies included in the bill, Hutton noted. 

Tiffany said he believes there are exploration companies prepared to start work in Wisconsin if the bill becomes law. He said he expects Michigan's Highland Copper Company and Canada's Aquila Resources would have an interest in the state's mineral deposits.

Aquila is currently working through the permitting process to extract gold, zinc, copper and silver from an 83-acre section of Upper Michigan located about 150 feet from the Menominee River. 

The company owns two projects in northern Wisconsin: the Reef deposit in Marathon County, where gold reserves were found in the 1970s, and the Bend copper and gold deposit in northern Taylor County’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The company has said its priority is the Back Forty project in Upper Michigan, and it has "no near-term plans for the Wisconsin assets."

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The Tiffany-Hutton bill is opposed by environmental and tribal groups, but the lawmakers said they have worked with some environmental groups to improve the bill even if it won't earn their support.

Former Department of Natural Resources secretary and current Wisconsin Wildlife Federation head George Meyer was influential in the amendments added to the bill, Tiffany said.

One amendment would require that technology at a proposed mining site be capable of meeting state environmental standards. Another would require an applicant to submit a plan and be granted a permit from the DNR before starting any bulk sampling activity.

Two others would effectively eliminate the "irrevocable trust in perpetuity" currently required of sulfide mining companies to ensure funding to pay for any future environmental costs.

Under the amendments, the trust agreement is replaced with two separate bonds. One would require a mining company to file a bond before mining begins to cover "unforeseen remedial contingencies" — such as spills or leaks — for 40 years after mining is completed. The second would require the company to demonstrate financial responsibility when the mine is closed to cover "reasonably anticipated costs" — such as repairs and replacements — up to 250 years after the mine's closure.

Passing the bill would give hope to an area of the state that is seeing its population age and become increasingly poor, Tiffany said, noting that northern Wisconsin has benefited less from economic development initiatives than other regions.

"People want to make things once again in America, and you can’t make things without raw materials," Tiffany said. "I believe we do have some ethical duty to produce some of those raw materials right here in the United States, here in Wisconsin."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.