The first part of a major state Department of Natural Resources reform package has environmental advocates worried Gov. Scott Walker is sacrificing oversight for speed in an attempt to clear the way for a major mining project in northern Wisconsin.
A pair of Republican lawmakers earlier this week introduced a 37-page bill on behalf of the governor that deals with piers, wharves and wetlands. But buried in the measure are provisions that could make it easier for mining companies by relaxing the review process for "prospecting" and "high-capacity wells," limiting protected wetland areas and establishing a timed approval process critics say favors companies over the community.
"This appears to be a back-door attempt to promote mining and take away people's right to have their concerns heard," said state Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison.
But accusations that the bill attempts to clear the way for mining did not sit well with the governor's office, who issued a stern rebuke.
"That is a flat-out lie," said Cullen Werwie, Walker's spokesman. "This has nothing to do with mining. It is part of an overall DNR reform package that has been planned since January."
Earlier this year, Gogebic Taconite put on hold plans for a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties, saying the state's regulatory environment is too onerous.
The company has said the open pit mine could support 2,834 jobs in a 12-county region of northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula and have a total economic impact of $604 million a year.
In an attempt to revive the proposal and its jobs, lawmakers have been working on a new set of regulations they hope will speed up the permitting process, while also protecting the environment — a major concern with such projects.
DNR said the amount of time required to obtain a mining permit depends on a project's complexity, but the shortest time would be about 3½ years.
The reform bill, sponsored by Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, and Rep. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz, was released Tuesday.
It addresses the permitting concerns by allowing DNR to write a rule that would change the existing period for approving high-capacity wells and prospecting activities and granting automatic approval if DNR cannot rule on cases in the prescribed amount of time.
"Under this bill, DNR would not even be allowed to deny approval even if the applicant gave them the wrong information," said Amber Meyer Smith, director of government relations for Clean Wisconsin, a state environmental advocacy group. "This seems like it could reward bad actors, and we can't figure out why that would be a good thing."
But Werwie said speeding up the approval process for a few permits does not mean there will be a lack of oversight.
"Mines have to get a lot of permits," he said.
The DNR reform bill is large, with multiple parts. Smith said her organization still is trying to analyze the proposal. So far, she said, it does seem to streamline the process.
"The approval process will be quicker, but we think it will come at the expense of a thorough review process," she said.
The bill also:
• Eases restrictions for structures that are placed in, or adjacent to navigable waters. This includes bridges, culverts and crossings, all of which are needed by mines.
• Limits the designation for Areas of Special Natural Resource Interest, which makes it easier to place structures in wetlands. The bill would allow officials to designate part of a body of water protected, instead of the entire area.