A proposed mine-permitting bill that came to a noisy demise in the state Legislature last session has quietly been given new life by Gov. Scott Walker, who initiated a process that could see mining legislation taken up once again by lawmakers when they convene early next year.
Tim Sullivan, chairman of the Wisconsin Mining Association, said Walker charged him with spearheading an effort to examine Wisconsin’s mining laws and learn about mine permitting in other states. That, he said, likely will lead to the formation of a panel to draw up a new proposal to streamline Wisconsin’s permitting process for iron mines, which has been criticized as too cumbersome and lengthy.
Sullivan was appointed as a special consultant by Walker and took up residence in an office in the state Department of Administration. The Mining Association is a pro-mining foundation formed last year by mining-related and other businesses to advocate for and educate the public about mining.
In a statement provided to the State Journal last week, Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor wants to see mining return to the state.
"Gov. Walker continues to support safe and environmentally sound mining in Wisconsin," Werwie said. "Changing the permitting process, by providing more certainty in the turnaround time for permit applicants, will help ensure that future projects can move forward in a timely manner."
Sullivan said his group hired Behre Dolbear, a worldwide mining consulting firm that, according to its website, provides advice on strategy, finance and environmental issues related to mining.
The consultant, Sullivan said, was asked to look at Wisconsin’s mining laws and compare them to other states, including Minnesota and Michigan and western states.
The company also will provide an evaluation of environmental protections, he said.
The consultant’s work is the first step in a process Sullivan hopes will be more deliberate and inclusive and more attuned to Wisconsin’s environmental concerns.
"People want the jobs, but I don’t think anybody wants the jobs to the long-term detriment of the environment," Sullivan said.
He added he expects the panel that eventually convenes will include mining interests, representatives from the state’s tribes and environmental groups.
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, has been privy to some of the behind-the-scenes work and has met with Sullivan several times.
He said he believes Sullivan is bringing a more deliberate approach to the issue than before, along with greater sensitivity to environmental issues.
"I am convinced he understands the balance that needs to be struck between mining going forward and reasonable protections for the environment," said Meyer, former secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.
The defeat of the previous mining legislation came largely because it included too many exemptions from environmental rules governing destruction of wetlands and disposal of mine wastes.
Those concerns were cited by state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who broke ranks to vote with Democrats against the mining bill, which was aimed at paving the way for the $1.5 billion open pit mine in northern Wisconsin proposed by Gogebic Taconite.
Sullivan said the current work is less closely connected to the specific proposal by Gogebic, which pulled out of its 700-job project in the Penokee Range after the mining bill failed.
Meyer and others say it is becoming more clear that the Penokee Range site is so environmentally sensitive it would require too large an investment to mine responsibly.
Recently, for example, the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey released information about a core sample taken about eight miles from the proposed Penokee site.
That sample showed the presence of sulfide minerals, which can create acid mine drainage when exposed to air and water.
Tom Evans, a geologist with the survey, said the sample does not necessarily mean there are sulfide minerals at the Gogebic site, but he added the findings should be considered in any upcoming discussions related to the site.
"It is going to be a very sensitive site to mine," Meyer said. "Most people acknowledge that now. Not all, but most."
Walker, apparently, still holds out some hope the Penokee deposit can be mined, his spokesman said in a statement.
"In regard to the specifics of the mine discussed earlier this year," Werwie said, "we’ll continue to look at all the information available, potential environmental impacts and projected economic growth as we consider moving policies forward."