ASHLAND — More than 200 northern Wisconsin residents related a wide range of concerns — from worries about the loss of Bad River tribal rice beds to Lake Superior pollution — during a 10-hour-long hearing here Saturday on proposed changes to the state's mining laws.
Most spoke against easing the state's permitting process and against the $1.5 billion, 700-job iron mine that proponents of the legislation hope will be built if a bill is passed.
The 4½-mile-long, open-pit mine is proposed by Gogebic Taconite and would be built in the Penokees, a wild and water-rich range of hills about 25 miles south of this city on Lake Superior.
Among the dozens who walked to the microphones, some did speak in favor of making it easier for Gogebic to build its mine, telling legislators the mine is necessary because of a struggling Northland economy.
"The people here have been living in poverty for 50 to 100 years," said Harry Ellsmore, a resident of Hurley. "That's all they know. ... This mine opportunity is something that should not be taken lightly."
Frank Costka, an Ashland businessman and head of the Ashland County Republican Party, said the mine would provide jobs even to workers who don't have college degrees.
"Tourism doesn't pay a living wage," Costka said.
But most spoke against the mine. Especially outspoken against changing mining laws were members of the Bad River Chippewa band.
Members of the band, whose reservation and rice beds are downriver from the proposed mine, were in heavy attendance at the session, including women wearing traditional jingle dresses that clicked and clattered as they walked. Prior to the first testimony, tribal members formed a drum circle and danced in the bitter cold outside an Ashland hotel.
Mike Wiggins Jr., Bad River tribal chairman, said the mine would threaten the rice beds at the mouth of the Bad River on Lake Superior because of sulfide that could be produced by waste piles and because of silt from earth and ground-up stone.
Also speaking were officials from nearby cities.
Bayfield Mayor Larry McDonald warned of potential damage to Lake Superior.
"Do no harm to Lake Superior," McDonald said. "Don't screw it up. We get only one shot at this. It takes 190 years to flush one drop of water out of Lake Superior."
Ashland Mayor Bill Whalen told legislators not to change current mining laws because the laws now protect communities such as his.
"That material from that mine will reach the bay in 25 or 30 years," Whalen said. "It's very important your legislation protects us."
Bob Tammen drove from Minnesota for the hearing. The former mine worker on Minnesota's famous Mesabi Range said despite the decades of mining in Minnesota, few communities along the iron range enjoy the kind of prosperity backers of the Wisconsin mine promise.
"We don't have a healthy main street along 100 miles of the Mesabi Range," Tammen said. "If mining brings prosperity, how come our communities don't have it?"
Saturday's listening session was organized by state Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, to give northern residents a chance to comment on a mine permitting bill he is offering as an alternative to a GOP bill approved last week by mining committees in both the Senate and Assembly.
Critics say the Republican bill weakens environmental protections by giving the Department of Natural Resources too much latitude to exempt a mining company from laws protecting wetlands, lakes and rivers.
Cullen said his bill sets a reasonable timeline for the DNR to act on a permit but makes no changes to environmental laws.
Ten Democratic legislators were in attendance at the hearing and one Republican, state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center.
State Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said the listening session was also organized because Republicans held only one hearing in Madison on the GOP bill and, despite going on all day, it ended with at least 100 people waiting to testify.
"We will stay until the last person has a chance to speak," Jauch said.