Controversial Wisconsin Mining Bill Headed to Governor Walker

On a party line vote of 58-39, the Wisconsin General Assembly sent a high-profile bill to Governor Scott Walker's desk for consideration yesterday which would make substantial changes to existing permitting and environmental regulation to open a large iron mine near Lake Superior. Despite the objections of environmental groups and Native American tribes, the Governor is expected to sign the bill and in a statement he praised lawmakers for streamlining the regulatory review process in order to help create needed new high-skilled jobs.

Thursday's passage of SB 1, culminated nearly two years of work by proponents to allow open-pit mining of iron by a company called Gogebic Taconite. Supporters of increased iron mining like the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce estimate that an expansion of iron mining could generate $1.5 billion in economic investment and thousands of mining and construction jobs for the state.

Legislators and environmental groups opposing the bill expressed strong concerns that the new proposal would wipe away important environmental protections and cause serious water and air pollution in a pristine area called the Penokee Range. Adding additional complexity to the final outcome of Thursday's vote was a statement by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa or Ojibwe Tribe, which has a reservation upstream from the mine, to use "every avenue of resistance" including legal action to slow down construction operations. In addition to the threat of lawsuits, the Tribe has regulatory authority granted by the EPA over water quality for users that impact their tribal water resources. 

Among the many provisions in the legislation, the highlights of SB 1 include:

  • A maximum time limit of 480 days for state environmental officials to maker permitting decisions - currently there is no time limit;
  • Requiring projects that damage one acre of wetlands to be replaced with up to one and a half acres of newly created wetlands; 
  • Caps permit fees at $2 million, plus the reimbursement of wetland mapping expenses for the state;
  • Taxes generated from the project would be split 60/40 between local governments and the state. Current law sends all mining proceeds to local government and there is no cap on permitting fees in place today; and
  • Provides exemptions for mining projects from having to pay the state's $7/ton recycling fee for waste materials.