A mining bill that is nearly identical to legislation voted down last session was introduced Wednesday by Republican legislators who hope that majorities in both houses will result this time in a different outcome and pave the way for a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.
Largely, it was the same script and the same cast of characters and a strange sense of deja vu as state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, introduced the proposal to a crowded conference room in the governor's office. He touted the jobs that mining would bring not only to depressed northern counties but to southern areas that are home to manufacturers of mining equipment.
"There is a real opportunity here in Wisconsin for us to have a resurgence in manufacturing," Tiffany said. He called the proposal to streamline permitting for iron mines — including a 420-day deadline for action on permit applications — a "21st century piece of mining legislation." And he said the bill would retain environmental protections.
But, just as last time around, critics pointed out that the legislation would allow a mining company to dispose of mining wastes in wetlands, rivers and streams. State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, who chaired a joint mining committee that came up with its own version of a bill, said that rather than creating jobs, the GOP bill will delay mining by inviting lawsuits that challenge the weakening of constitutional water protections.
"It clearly allows the filling of lakes and streams," Cullen said. "They are willing to allow that to happen as a price that they are willing to pay."
Despite vows from the Republicans to work with Democrats on the legislation, Cullen said he was not contacted about potential changes in the bill based on work conducted over several months by his mining committee. He said he plans to introduce his own bill this week.
State Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who helped defeat last session's mining bill by jumping ship and voting with Democrats, said after Wednesday's press conference that he saw few substantial changes in the proposed legislation, other than some language. He said he did not receive a copy of the proposal until just prior to the press conference.
Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker, who emphasized passage of a bill in his State of the State speech Tuesday night, hope to bring the legislation up for a vote by March.
State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, who is a co-author of the bill, said Republicans are willing to meet with Democrats to discuss potential changes to the proposed legislation.
"Our door is wide open," Suder said.
While Republicans said the bill is important to encourage mining projects throughout the state, their primary emphasis was clearly on reviving the shelved plan to build a 4 1/2-mile-long open pit iron mine in the Penokee Range south of Ashland. Gogebic Taconite, the company that proposed building the mine, pulled out of the state after the failure of mining legislation last session.
But Tiffany said he has met with Gogebic officials recently. "They are still interested," he added.
Among the speakers Wednesday was Leslie Kolasar, chairwoman of the Iron County Local Mining Impact Committee and a charter member of the Bad River Watershed Association. She said she supports the GOP mining bill and said she would welcome the return of mining jobs and "the dignity of work" to the Penokee Range.
"I trust our regulatory agencies to protect our water," Kolasar said. "And we have to consider not only the natural environment but also the human environment."