Our Views: State should consider changes to mining law

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Amid the partisan zeal of Republicans who control every move in Madison, state Sen. Tim Cullen warned last year that mining legislation might hinder rather than help Gogebic Taconite open a massive iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties.

Cullen argued against passing a measure that might create a state approval process that's faster than federal timelines. He suggested that the law could cost a mining company more money because it would have to argue its case on two time tracks.

Cullen knew what he was talking about.

What passed and Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed was a bill that gives the state Department of Natural Resources a deadline of 420 days—with a possible 60-day extension—to act on a mining permit. That ignores the fact that a mine can't open without federal approval. Cullen pointed out that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires between two and four years, sometimes longer, to review an application.

The Janesville Democrat understood the process because he listened to expert testimony as chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Mining. Republicans desperate to bring more of those jobs that Walker promised ignored Cullen's cautions. Cullen and committee members Sens. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, and Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, voted against the GOP bill. Republicans labeled them obstructionists who aren't interested in creating jobs.

A new letter from the Army Corps vindicates the trio. Tamara Cameron of the Army Corps' St. Paul office wrote Dec. 23 that the agency must decline a DNR request to jointly develop an Environmental Impact Statement “due to differences between the state and federal environmental review requirements.”

Cameron's letter did say, however, the Army Corps would coordinate state and federal review requirements “whenever possible.”

Her letter comes on the heels of repeated Army Corps warnings that the legislation would change the state's environmental standards and permitting process in ways that might prevent collaboration. Never mind, the Republicans said.

Cameron's letter, the three senators suggest in a letter to colleagues, “essentially neuters Wisconsin's mining law and hands control of the process over to the federal government.”

The DNR, the trio stated, is bound by a meaningless law, and the process will be more expensive, with costly and time-consuming court challenges.

George Meyer, former DNR secretary, heads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which opposed the legislation. He said having state and federal agencies working on separate tracks will slow the process.

Gogebic spokesman Bob Seitz told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Meyer “is trying to spin this letter that the Corps will never work with us, and we don't think that's true.”

We must have missed where Meyer said that.

Cullen, Jauch and Schultz say it's not too late to replace the law. They believe they offered a reasonable alternative and told colleagues they stand ready to work on a fix.

“Either changes must be made to the law or it will remain completely unworkable,” the trio wrote. “Defenders of the mining law can no longer ignore reality.”

Walker could pave the way during Wednesday's State of the State address. Amid the partisan divide in Madison, however, that seems doubtful.

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