State Views: Mining tensions simmer in northern Wisconsin

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Sen. Tim Cullen
Tuesday, August 6, 2013

I recently visited the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin for the third time. I met with Ashland County Board Chairman Pete Russo and Mellen Mayor Joe Barabe.

I also visited the Penokee Hills Harvest Camp. I can report that it is a peaceful, beautiful area. In my time there, I saw no protesters. I saw people learning about the history of Native Americans in the area. In the briefing I received, the mine was never mentioned.

I cannot say I have been surprised by public pushback to the early stages of the exploratory mining process by a mining company that recently wrote and helped pass state legislation that significantly lowered mining regulations in Wisconsin.

Gogebic Taconite, a subsidiary of a West Virginia coal mining company, came into Wisconsin in 2011 to tell Gov. Walker and Republicans that if environmental standards were lowered, the company would open an iron mine in the Penokee Hills of Ashland and Iron counties. They just forgot to tell Wisconsin citizens of this demand. Publicly, they just said they needed more certainty in the permitting process.

The governor and the legislative majority gave G-Tac exactly what it wanted. They significantly lowered environmental standards. Their legislation:

-- Changed mining law, which presumed that dumping waste into wetlands was unnecessary, to presuming that dumping waste into wetlands was necessary.

-- Created a new law to allow dumping of mining waste into bodies of water as large as two football fields. The mining company lobbyists referred to these bodies of water as “puddles.”

-- Allowed dumping mining waste into any river or stream that is less than 2 miles long. Rivers and streams in the Penokee Hills meeting this distance requirement total 108 miles.

According to UW-Milwaukee’s recent Wisconsin Economic Scorecard public opinion poll, Wisconsinites have indicated they want mining jobs but not at the expense of the environment.

All of the mining waste will be dumped in the Bad River watershed, which flows north into Lake Superior, the largest freshwater body in the world.

The tensions that have already developed at the very early stage of a lengthy permitting process, I believe, can be directly traced back to the governor and Republican Legislature taking orders from G-Tac and not listening to the people of Wisconsin.

Earlier this year, I traveled north to tour the proposed mine site and meet with people who lived in surrounding communities. I left with the understanding that local communities want the mine, but only if it does not threaten the environment in the Penokees and Lake Superior.

I believe the central issue going forward is the same issue presented to the mining committee I chaired last fall. How do we ensure the protection of the air and water of the Penokee Hills and Lake Superior for the next thousand years if an iron ore mine is allowed in the Penokee Hills under lowered environmental standards, which were recently written into our statutes?

Everything else is a sideshow during this likely six- to 10-year process.

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, served as chairman of last year’s Senate Select Committee on Mining, which held more than 20 hours of testimony from industry experts; state, federal, and tribal regulators; environmental advocates; and business leaders. Cullen serves Wisconsin’s 15th Senate District, which includes most of Rock County and the Whitewater area. He can be reached at 1-800-334-1438 or (608) 266-2253; at Sen.Cullen@legis.wi.gov, or at P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707.

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