Cullen: Misinformation considered root cause for previous mining bill's failure
Before it offers a new mining bill, the Senate Select Committee on Mining is working to cut through misinformation spread before the last mining bill failed, Sen. Tim Cullen said.
"What we have found is that there was a lot of misinformation when we considered a mining bill last session," said Cullen, a Janesville Democrat who chairs the committee. "These hearings have cleared up a lot of that. These are clarifications not based on politics and not based on what members of the committee think. These are conclusions of experts who work closely with mining."
For example, a representative of the Wisconsin Mining Association told the committee that tough environmental standards do not hinder mining in Wisconsin, and regulators agree that the permitting process for a new iron mine would be about six years if state and federal agencies work together.
"We learned several things in the three informational hearings we've held, but two stand out for me," Cullen said. "We have learned that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is not the lone player in issuing a permit, and we have learned that the time frame in the bill that failed in the past session—basically one year—is not realistic."
Stephen V. Donohue, a hydrologist for Foth Infrastructure & Environment in Green Bay, has 20 years experience in permitting mines in Wisconsin and Michigan, including the now-reclaimed Flambeau mine near Ladysmith. He spoke at the hearing on behalf of the Wisconsin Mining Association.
"Based on my experience in the industry, I would say that the basic reason there is no investment in this state from the metallic mining industry is due to regulatory uncertainty of the permitting process and ambiguous rules embedded in Wisconsin's current statutory and regulatory framework for the development of metallic resources," Donohue told the committee at a Sept. 25 hearing.
"The requirement for rigorous baseline environmental studies, environmental impact analysis, sound engineering plans, environmental monitoring, reclamation, post-reclamation monitoring, compliance with groundwater quality standards, surface water quality standards, air quality standards and financial assurances are not hindrances to investment in the state by the mining industry," he told the committee.
Cullen said Donohue's testimony is consistent with public statements by Gogebic Taconite, the mining company interested in opening an open pit iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin's Penokee Range in Ashland and Iron counties.
"G-Tac said all along the permitting process was a problem," Cullen said. "They never publicly claimed our environmental standards were a problem, yet the bill last session eased some environmental standards to the point where the bill was unacceptable to a majority in the Senate."
An example of environmental changes Cullen cited was a provision on mitigation.
"You cannot do mining without some environmental impacts," Cullen said. "The bill last session allowed mines to fill, which means eliminate, trout streams, rivers and lakes. To mitigate or compensate for those losses, the bill would allow for the construction of a structure somewhere.
"The bill didn't specify what structures could be built," he said. "Does that mean a boat landing on the Rock River in southern Wisconsin mitigates the elimination of a trout stream in northern Wisconsin?
"That's obviously not acceptable, but was it necessary to include that in the bill?" Cullen said. "The mining interests were not asking for environmental changes."
The Legislature could set a permitting timeline of 100 days, but that would not ensure that a permit would be approved or denied within that time frame, Cullen said.
"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for one, has to sign off," Cullen said. "They are not going to go along with an unreasonably short timeline. There would be at least two timelines resulting in additional cost to the mine."
The timeline issue was confirmed by Rebecca Graser, an Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman who testified at the committee hearings.
"Each project is specific, but if the state had mandatory timeframes for completing these sorts of studies, it would be less desirable for the agency to complete one of these studies jointly with the state," Graser said. "It would put them (mining permit applicants) in a position of having two documents completed from two separate entities. I would expect that it would increase their costs significantly."
Cullen said the committee learned the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation had concerns about the effects mining could have on the environment but was not anti-mining.
"It has been almost 30 years since the adoption of Wisconsin's current mining statute, and it is highly appropriate to review and update the law," said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and past secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
"In the recent legislative session, the major issue cited for changes to Wisconsin's current mining law was the potential for a dragged-out regulatory process and the need for reasonable timelines to assure regulatory certainty for a mining applicant," Meyer said. "If fact, this was the only issue that Gogebic Taconite brought forth publicly. Never once did the company publicly state the need for other changes in environmental regulation.
"The federation is clearly not anti-mining," Meyer said. "The federation's official position on mining is to be supportive of mining and that mining regulation should be done in a manner that does not unnecessarily or substantially adversely affect fish and wildlife habitat or reduce public input into the issuance of mining permits."
Cullen said another example of misinformation was a comparison with Minnesota.
"We heard during the debate last session that we were behind Minnesota in the permitting process," he said. "Well, the facts are that Minnesota has not issued a permit for a new iron ore mine in 40 years. They have issued permits for expansions of existing mines, but no new ones. We also learned that the shorter timelines we hear about in Minnesota are for those expansions and additions to existing mines, not new mines."
One application in Minnesota is in its ninth year, Cullen said.
"There have been delays, but the mine continues to pursue the permit."
The general timeline, Cullen said, as spelled out by witnesses at his committee's hearings, is that it takes about two years for a mine to do its preliminary work prior to applying for a permit. It takes another four years for a new mine and about 2.5 years for an expansion for an existing mine, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, he said.
The Senate committee will continue its hearings and is scheduling testimony from regulators in Minnesota; Tim Sullivan, who will report on a study of other states and their mining processes; local government officials; and representatives from local economic development organizations.
"We plan to have a recommendation ready for the next session, a reasonable and workable proposal that will provide jobs and protect the environment," Cullen said