More than a year ago when two Republican lawmakers introduced a bill they said was aimed at streamlining the state’s wetlands regulations, critics clamored that the changes would pave the way for what was an already controversial proposal to site an open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin.
That fear, expressed largely by environmental advocates and Indian tribes, related to the proposed location of the $1.5 billion mine, straddling hundreds of acres of wetlands in the Penokee Hills.
Mining for iron ore would create waste, the logic went, and that waste would need to be dumped somewhere close by, an act only allowed under limited circumstances under state law at the time.
Yet during a well-attended public hearing on Oct. 26, 2011, on Senate/Assembly Bill 24 that he co-authored, Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, said the groups trying to draw a link between the state’s ability to permit the mine and his bill were “grasping at straws” and insisted, “This is not a mining bill.”
“This bill does not set the stage nor does it create any kind of backdoor for mining or wetland regulations,” Kedzie went on to say while testifying before the joint Senate and Assembly Natural Resources committees. (Go to this link to hear Kedzie's testimony, about 30 minutes into the video.)
Turns out, it does.
When Republicans unveiled the latest version of the mining bill last week, it included significant language from the bill, much to the chagrin of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association. The group had worked closely and “in good faith” with Kedzie and other lawmakers on the bill that was passed into law in 2012.
“Obviously we didn’t connect all the dots, because there it was in all its glory,” Erin O’Brien, the association's wetland policy director, said in an interview Tuesday. “Clearly, that was somebody’s objective. It is disappointing.”
O’Brien says they trusted the authors when they were told the bill was not about mining. She added the association had worked with lawmakers for several years with a goal “to address problems with existing wetland regulations without eroding wetland protection.”
That bill, authored by Kedzie and Rep. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz, laid the groundwork for a company to site a mine near wetlands by loosening the standards for mitigating, or offsetting, the destruction of wetlands in one location by building wetlands elsewhere in the state.
Those guidelines were further loosened in the mining bill introduced last week by Republican lawmakers. (The only scheduled hearing on the mining bill begins Wednesday at 9 a.m. in Room 411 South at the state Capitol.)
Whether Kedzie was aware this was going to happen is unclear. He did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. For her part, O’Brien says she hasn’t spoken to Kedzie since the mining bill was reintroduced last week.
O’Brien says prior to Kedzie’s bill, the state Department of Natural Resources was allowed, in very limited circumstances, to consider wetlands mitigation. The Kedzie bill, she says, now requires the DNR to consider mitigation.
The mining bill introduced last week builds on the ability to mitigate that was outlined in the Kedzie bill by stating on page 126 that the “DNR shall grant the exemption if: The exemption will result in significant adverse environmental impacts, but the applicant will offset those impacts through a mitigation program …”
Helen Sarakinos, policy director with the River Alliance of Wisconsin, described the Kedzie-Mursau wetlands bill as a game changer when it comes to protecting wetlands in Wisconsin.
“The law that existed until last year made it difficult to destroy wetlands,” Sarakinos says. “Now all of a sudden you don’t have to protect what you have, you can just mitigate the impacts somewhere else. That wasn’t the case prior to the Kedzie bill.”
Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, introduced his own mining bill Tuesday following a series of public hearings he’s been holding since last summer. He says he voted against SB/AB 24 because he thought it lowered wetland protection standards.
Others, he says, voted for the bill because they were assured it had nothing to do with mining.
“Everybody at the DNR and everywhere else swore up and down that bill had nothing to do with mining,” Cullen said in a phone interview. “But look at the mining bill introduced last week. It is 206 pages long. The bill they (Republicans) said they were reintroducing was 170 pages long. The difference is largely the inclusion of the wetlands bill.”