By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Ostensibly, Wednesday’s public hearing was about a bill aimed at streamlining various state Department of Natural Resources permitting processes.
In reality, with dozens in attendance, including representatives from DNR, environmental and wildlife groups, Native American tribes and northwestern Wisconsin communities, the debate foreshadowed legislation on mining.
The Senate and Assembly natural resources’ committees jointly held the public hearing on Special Session Senate Bill 24
legislation that makes wide-ranging changes to DNR permitting processes, which proponents describe as “costly” and “vague.” Critics say the bill significantly overlaps mining issues and raises environmental red flags.
The bill “does not set the stage, nor does it create any kind of back door for mining or wetlands legislation,” state Sen. Neal Kedzie
“This bill is the culmination of reform ideas between lawmakers and the department to achieve a mutual goal of streamlining various regulations,” Kedzie said.
Among the most controversial ideas are adding a presumptive approval of piers permits if the DNR fails to act quickly and allowing the DNR to publish public announcements on its website, instead of, for example, in newspapers.
The issue of pier regulation came up in 2003, but specifics weren’t addressed in law, Kedzie said, leading to a complex “matrix” of confusing regulations.
“Some piers which have been in the water for decades causing no navigable or environmental problems were effectively deemed illegal under that matrix,” he said. “Or piers which were determined to be legal under the new law had to be proven as such through a complex registration system.”
State Sen. Jim Holperin
, D-Conover, said pier approvals have to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, because every pier and every lake is different.
“The only thing that you might want to consider — I don’t even mention this facetiously — is to get rid of pier regulation in Wisconsin, just get rid of everything,” Holperin said, and invest time and money instead on educating people about building and maintaining piers that are kind to the environment and don’t impede navigation.
Critics also attacked a provision that would modify Areas of Special Natural Resource Interest, or ASNRIs — waters that cannot be exempted from permitting requirements — so that ASNRIs with endangered or threatened species only would include waters with critical habitat for those species, said DNR spokesman Bill Cosh.
“Shortening timelines, limiting public participation, limiting ASNRI designations are all included in this bill (SB24), but they all cut to the heart of some of the critical issues that center around mining issues,” said Michael Wiggins
, chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe
A bipartisan committee is considering changing the state’s mining law, arguably driven by Gogebic Taconic LLC
‘s proposal for an open-pit iron mine in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
The iron ore mining company has leased the mining rights to 22,000 acres in the Penokee Range near Ashland. Company officials have said it would invest about $1.5 billion in a mine operation that would create hundreds of jobs.
The company last spring did not convince the Legislature to approve a faster permitting process with fewer environmental restrictions, but lawmakers have continued the debate this fall.
The mining bill still is being drafted, but the SB24 debate served as a proxy for the fight over mining.
Proponents of mining expansion note the sagging economy and the need for jobs in northern Wisconsin, much of which has some of the highest unemployment rates in the state. In September, Ashland County’s unemployment rate of 8.6 percent was the 11th highest of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
Opponents worry about the environmental consequences and impact on the tourism industry. Travelers spent $255 million in Ashland, Iron and Bayfield counties in 2010, according to the state Department of Tourism. Of that, $64 million was spent in Ashland County.
If Wednesday is any indication, the mining legislation will be hotly, and extensively, contested.
Debate on SB24 began just before noon, but by late afternoon, the public hearing appeared nowhere near conclusion. At 4 p.m., 60 people were scheduled to speak, each limited to three minutes.
Those interested in the mining issue, though, will have another opportunity to discuss that topic Thursday.
The Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business scheduled an informal hearing at 1 p.m. at the school district auditorium in Hurley in northern Wisconsin.
Sen. Neal Kedzie
Sen. Jim Holperin