An alternative version of a measure to reform Wisconsin's mining regulations was introduced Tuesday (Jan. 22) by Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville.)
Standing next to him at the press conference to unveil the measure was Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) - the lone Republican to vote against a mining reform bill favored by his party in last year's legislative session.
Schultz said he planned to sign onto Cullen's bill as a co-sponsor.
The two senators said they see their bill an alternative to a measure introduced by two northern Wisconsin GOP lawmakers last week, which is intended to pave the way for a new iron mining operation in Ashland and Iron counties.
Gov. Scott Walker had asked lawmakers to get him a new mining bill that he could sign when he gave his State-of-the-state address.
Schultz voted against the GOP mining measure last session because of what he saw as the loss of environmental protections; he said he takes issue with this year's version for the same reason.
When Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) introduced their measure on Jan. 16, they said it would be a way to help northern Wisconsin where major employers are scarce.
A contemplated mine in the Penokee Range in northern Wisconsin would be a huge boost to the local economy, they said.
Environmentalists and tribal leaders are unhappy with the bill's provisions that they say would relax environmental restrictions.
The GOP leaders said their new proposal - which mirrors the measure that went down last session by that one-vote margin - would create a more predictable process for companies seeking mining permits in Wisconsin.
Cullen said the GOP version would change state environmental law by using more subjective language to describe environmental decisions and would be more favorable than not to mining companies.
Co-sponsor Schultz said he was especially concerned about the impact to wetlands that could come from the Tiffany-Suder bill. Changes in a wetland bill last year are now folded into the mining proposal and would remove protections for some wetlands as well as allowing a mining company to "mitigate" destruction of a wetland.
That means that if a wetland were destroyed, the law would allow it as long as another wetland was "built" to replace it. Opponents of the measure say it will exempt mining companies from groundwater protection laws.
Gogebic Taconite or G Tac, as some lawmakers call it, is a company that expressed interest in mining iron ore (sometimes called taconite) in northern Wisconsin's Penokee Range if changes in state law could be made to suit the company.
When the mining bill failed last year the company said it was no longer interested in creating the $1.5 billion open-pit mine, which would likely span over four miles in northern Wisconsin.
Some of those commenting on the proposal last week said that would make it the largest open pit iron mine in the world.
A Gogebic Taconite spokesman told lawmakers that if the Republican mining measure passes, his company is once again interested in a Wisconsin mine and would apply for a permit.
Differences between Cullen's alternative bill and the GOP measure include different time restrictions on the state in its permitting process through the Department of Natural Resources.
Tiffany and Suder said mining companies deserve to have more predictability and timeliness in the granting of permits so they can get on with doing business. Their bill sets the permitting deadline at 420 days, with the provision for one 60-day extension.
Cullen's proposal would allow two years for the permitting process, which could be extended by request of either the DNR or the mining company. His bill proposes to return all of the mining tax revenue to local communities affected mining operations.
Under the GOP bill, 60 percent of those mining tax revenues would go to local communities and 40 percent would go to the state.
Only a day after Cullen introduced his alternative bill, the capital was swarmed with citizens attending a hearing on the GOP mining measure. Many watched the hearing in overflow rooms via video broadcast.
Both sides had the chance to voice their support or opposition to the Republican measure - Senate Bill 1, as the 206-page draft mining measure is called - on Wednesday (Jan. 23) during a joint hearing of the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining, and Revenue and the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Mining.
The hearing, which stretched for more than 12 hours - going until after 9 p.m. - still didn't leave enough time for comments from all of the citizens that had registered to speak.
Some, especially those who rode on a bus for hours to get to the hearing, were upset with lawmakers for not scheduling a hearing on the measure in northern Wisconsin, the area that would be most affected by the mine.
Many northern Wisconsin residents who did get a chance to speak testified that they were in favor of the law and the mine it would likely bring to their area, because they need jobs.
Opponents of the measure said they oppose what they see as a relaxation of environmental standards included in the bill and believe it would bring pollution to the Penokee Range, their groundwater, lakes and streams.
Some of the testimony at the hearing disputed whether or not the measure would broaden environmental standards beyond what is currently in state law.
Former DNR Sec. George Meyer, who is now head of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, testified that they will would lead to destruction of wetlands and allow mining companies to fill in lakes as well as threatening groundwater.
During an interview on Wisconsin Public Television, Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa said that he and his people oppose the mining measure. They are concerned about what a possible mine could do to the wild rice crop in northern Wisconsin.
Wild rice, which grows in wetlands, would be affected by the deposition of waste rock from an iron mining pit, especially if state law allows Gogebic Taconite a freer hand in where it can deposit the waste rock.
Wiggins said the waste rock would likely have high levels of sulfate because the rock formations in the area carry that element.
He fears the levels of sulfate that could be in the waste would be devastating to wild rice - a sacred crop to the tribe.
Wiggins said tribal treaty rights may be called into play in the mining permit process, which "appears to want to ignore treaty right for resources."
The mine - which he said would be the largest open pit iron mine in the world - would be built at the headwaters of the Bad River, which is important to the tribal band because the river feeds rice beds on the Chippewa's reservation.
Tribal treaty rights, which were granted to the sovereign nation, he said, may be a legal way for the mining proposal to be halted.