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Shirl LaBarre and Jim Miller of Hayward testify in support of proposed mining permit legislation during a public hearing at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 23, 2013. M.P. King-State Journal

Michael P. King

From corporate officials who want to build a giant iron mine to northern high school students seeking jobs to tribal members and others worried about pollution, dozens of people spoke Wednesday at an emotional, contentious legislative hearing on proposed GOP changes to the state's mining law.

Early in the hearing, Bob Seitz, a lobbyist with Gogebic Taconite, said the company will apply for a mining permit if the GOP bill is passed.

Gogebic is the company that withdrew plans to build a $1.5 billion open pit iron mine near Ashland last year after failed mining legislation.

"If this bill or something similar is passed, we absolutely want to be here," Seitz said.

The GOP bill is similar to legislation defeated last session and would require the state Department of Natural Resources to act on a mining permit application within 480 days. It also makes changes to environmental rules, though proponents say the bill does not allow the DNR to issue a permit if a mine would cause pollution.

Many on both sides of the issue waited throughout the day and into the evening to testify. And many were critical of the committee for not holding a hearing in northern Wisconsin and for holding a single hearing on the broad changes proposed in the bill.

Late testimony was almost exclusively against the bill, causing an uproar from dozens of people waiting to speak when state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, abruptly adjourned the meeting at 9:06 p.m.

Democrats on the committee immediately called the hearing “insufficient” and asked Republicans to schedule a meeting in northern Wisconsin, but received no response.

Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, called Wednesday’s hearing “an astonishingly bad way to start what was supposed to be a transparent, bipartisan process.”

Clark also accused Republicans of stacking the early part of the hearing with mine supporters, before cutting off a large number of opponents at the meeting’s scheduled end time.

“We heard from some invited speakers, which was appropriate. But after that, they stacked the deck with a number of speakers that eloquently expressed their support for the mine. The testimony earlier in the day was not balanced,” he said.

Clark said he would ask the committee chairs for registrations to see how many people were not able to speak.

Among those who testified were several individuals from northern Wisconsin communities who said they want the jobs a mine would provide.

Rhonda Olkonen, a teacher from Hurley, broke down in tears as she described how her husband is now living in a trailer in North Dakota and working on a mine there, even though he would be qualified to work on a Wisconsin mine.

"It's not fair," said Olkonen.

Others who said they would welcome the mining jobs included four high school students from Hurley who said the lack of jobs in the area will force them to leave the community, even though they would prefer to stay.

But it became clear during the hearing that despite claims of proponents to the contrary, the GOP mining bill does change and in some instances reduces environmental protections that exist in current mining law.

Under questioning from state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, and others, a spokesman for the Legislative Council, which analyzes bills, said exemptions to environmental standards allowed in the proposed bill are broader than those allowed in current law.

Also, Ann Coakley, a mining expert with the state Department of Natural Resources, said the bill does change air and water standards at the mine site.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former DNR secretary, said the bill would allow wetlands to be destroyed, lakes to be filled in and groundwater to be withdrawn, despite threats to nearby wells.

Tiffany, who co-authored the bill, said during his testimony that the bill does not change any underlying air or water standards. He said the bill does allow the DNR to grant exemptions to standards but added that current law also allows such exemptions.

Those who testified against the legislation and the mine mostly said they are worried about the potential for pollution, especially if the law weakens environmental protections.

Members of the Wisconsin Chippewa bands were among the most outspoken against the bill and the proposed Gogebic mine. The large mine would be built at the headwaters of the Bad River, which nourish the rice beds on the Bad River Chippewa reservation at the headwaters on Lake Superior.

Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Chippewa, said tribal members were not consulted about the GOP bill even though the tribes are a sovereign nation with powerful treaty rights that could be invoked to halt a mine or challenge legislation.

"This bill is set to violate the treaties," said Wiggins.

Other tribal members also said they are prepared to challenge a mine in court. "We don't fight with bows and arrows anymore," said a Lac du Flambeau tribal member. "We fight with words in court."

From the opening gavel, the hearing proved as combative and as contentious as the mining issue itself. Hundreds of northern residents traveled to Madison for the hearing, some by chartered bus.

Democratic legislators loudly objected when Mary Williams, R-Medford, co-chairwoman of the joint committee holding the hearing, limited questions from committee members.

State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, called the hearing a "kangaroo court."

Jauch, who was on the phone from Hawaii for the hearing because his daughter is getting married there, objected to the hearing being held in Madison rather than northern Wisconsin and said he has more access to the hearing from the middle of the Pacific than his northern constituents.

Early during the hearing, many comments and subsequent questions focused on potential changes in the bill to environmental standards.

— Jeff Glaze of the Wisconsin State Journal contributed to this report.

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