By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – The political zoo that has surrounded mining regulatory reform in Wisconsin during the past year continued Wednesday at the Capitol with a public hearing on legislation proposed by Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Halzelhurst.
The new bill and the new hearing produced the same results as last year — unabashed political grandstanding, emotional public testimony and a slew of contradictions.
Hundreds of Wisconsinites trekked to the Capitol, filling the Joint Finance Committee hearing room and spilling over into three other rooms to hear testimony that was expected to last 12 hours.
The tension in the room quickly boiled over.
Rep. Fred Clark, D-Sauk City, called the proceedings a “sham.” Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, who last session wrote a dead-on-arrival compromise mining bill with Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center, joined the hearing via conference call. He quipped that it seemed like the hearing was being held in communist China.
Williams capped the time for legislators to question the authors of the bill. Not all legislators were able to ask their questions. Instead, the chair asked those legislators to contact the bill’s authors at another time. Others giving testimony were allowed two minutes to speak. Legislators were allowed two questions and a follow-up.
Tiffany read off a list of rules before the heated hearing began:
- No profanity
- No instruments
- No interpretive dance
- No outfits
- No signs
- No cell phones
- No behavior deemed offensive by committee chairs.
Democrats who signed up to testify blasted Republicans for indicating Wednesday’s public hearing would be the only hearing on the new bill.
Republicans countered that more than 50 hours of public hearing had already been held on the issue for a similar bill last year.
Officials from Gogebic Taconite, the company that has said it could build $1.5-billion open pit iron ore project in the Gogebic range under streamlined permitting regulations, said they already had testified at four hearings prior to Wednesday’s session.
After threatening that the company would leave the state after mining reform failed last year, Gogebic Taconite’s chief executive Bill Williams on Wednesday said the company was prepared to begin the permitting process as soon as legislation was signed into law.
Citizens from Hurley, a town built on mining in the Northwoods,spoke in favor of the bill, sometimes breaking down into tears as they spoke of friends and family who can’t find jobs or have moved away from the area.
Other citizens testified just as passionately against the bill, saying it would destroy air and water quality standards.
Jerome “Brooks” Big John, of the Lac du Flambeau tribe, predicted the state would faced endless litigation and that the dynamite used to blow holes in the Penokee Range would “create a Hiroshima every nine days.”
Department of Natural Resources officials testified the bill doesn’t erode environmental controls.
“I don’t think the bill does anything to air and water quality standards on the mine site,” said DNR representative Ann Coakley.
The Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also would have to sign off on a permit for a mine project to be approved.
The corps was not asked to testify, but a representative from the agency addressed the committee in the public comment section.
After a year’s debate, the hearing sounded similar to other hearings in the past year. Maybe that’s because none of the facts have changed.
Republicans and Democrats are just as far apart on mining legislation as they were last year. The Bad River tribes have the same treaty rights they had last year. A mining applicant would have to pass the same air and water quality standards at the state and federal level.
With a mine permitting process nationally spanning seven to 10 years, Wisconsin mine proponents may have a long wait ahead, even with regulatory reform at home.
“We don’t have hard time frames to complete those reviews. What is more important than meeting those time frames is to make sure we have good information,” said Rebecca Graserof the Army Corps of Engineers.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected]