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mining hearing 2-17

Members of the Joint Finance Committee listen to testimony Friday on a controversial bill (AB426) that would streamline permitting processes for mining operations in Wisconsin.

Dozens of people waited hours to testify Friday on the latest version of the state's controversial efforts to craft an iron ore mining bill, with many charging the bill ignores science and provides a platform for mining companies to play by their own rules.

Early testimony before the Joint Finance Committee from the bill's authors and mining company officials focused on the need for the bill to pass in order to provide certainty and a more streamlined permitting process for iron-ore mining companies. But later testimony focused on the fact that the stretch of northern Wisconsin land Gogebic Taconite wants to mine contains more than simply iron ore.

"This is a scientific issue," Joe Skulan of Lodi told members of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee. "And nobody is talking about the rocks."

Skulan, and others, including George Meyer, who served as secretary of the Department of Natural Resources under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, were critical of the state passing a mining law that only regulates iron ore mining and doesn't address toxic chemicals that are likely to be stirred up in the process.

The state's current mining law regulates all of these materials. But the bill now before the committee no longer regulates non-ferrous mining. By all accounts, this bill was crafted specifically to assist Gogebic Taconite in its proposal to dig a huge iron ore mine south of Ashland.

Meyer says the lack of regulations would leave no safeguards in place when the sulphite layers above the iron ore seep into the lakes, streams and groundwater nearby.

"This is a mine that should be regulated under current standards," Meyer said.

Meyer, currently the executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said anyone who knows anything about rock formations can simply look at the site where the $1.5 billion mine is being proposed to see there are other rock materials on top of the iron ore that will be problematic.

Skulan added that when a material like pyrite, commonly known as fool's gold, mixes with oxygen, it becomes a toxic substance that also would go unregulated, causing pollution to nearby waterways.

"There may well be as much pyrite as there is ore," Skulan said. "But the mining company is saying ‘No. This is just an iron ore mine.'"

Gogebic Taconite has not done any sampling of the rocks, leading to wide speculation about what is buried below the earth.

"Those concerns about environmental damages are very real," Meyer says. "There is no way of arguing that this law isn't lowering the state's environmental standards."

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Friday's hearing on the Assembly version of the mining bill (AB 426) came roughly 36 hours after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, disbanded a committee working on a Senate compromise to the legislation that addressed some of the more controversial components.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported Friday morning, however, that the Senate lacked the votes to pass the Senate version.

Yet another mining bill is now in the works, with Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, working to craft a version he says will be ready Monday. Republicans, who control the Senate 17-16, have made job creation and passage of a mining bill top priorities since gaining the majority in November 2010, but Schultz had said earlier that he could not support the Assembly mining bill.

With Gov. Scott Walker and four other GOP senators now expected to face recall elections, the Republicans are anxious to deliver legislation they say will provide good jobs.

"This bill is about creating jobs for my district," Sen. Pam Galloway, R-Wausau, told the committee Friday, echoing the Republican theme. Galloway is facing a recall. "The positive impacts of this mine being built will be felt not only in northern Wisconsin, but across the state."