December 15, 2011 / 12:55 AM / 8 years ago

Wisconsin debates law to speed mining permits

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - A state measure to speed up the regulatory process for iron mines was met on Wednesday with a mix of support for the jobs a planned northern Wisconsin mine could create and concerns about its potential impact.

An environmental group also questioned whether the mining bill as proposed would conflict with the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement between the eight Great Lakes states on economic and environmental issues.

Russ Rasmussen, deputy water administrator for the state natural resources department, said there was no direct conflict, but the proposed bill provided “for some inconsistencies.”

The bill, discussed in a public hearing in the Milwaukee area, was introduced in the majority Republican state assembly last week to support a Gogebic Taconite plan for a $1.5 billion large scale mine in portions of Iron and Ashland counties.

The measure might require the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to deny a permit under the Great Lakes Compact because of large water withdrawals and approve a mining permit under state law, said Amber Meyer Smith, director of government relations at Clean Wisconsin.

The proposed mine would use up to 41 million gallons of water each day according to estimates — more than the daily water use for the entire city of Madison, Smith said.

Gogebic Taconite, a subsidiary of a West Virginia-based mining corporation, the Cline Group, wants to build the 4-1/2-mile-long open-pit iron mine on the crest of a forested ridge near Mellen, Wisconsin.

The company has said the project could create 700 direct mining jobs, more than 3,000 construction jobs, and $604 million of total economic benefits annually.

Many residents want jobs that will come from mining, as the area has seen a dramatic population loss coinciding with a decline of mining in the 1960s.

“We don’t have any jobs; all we’ve got is tourism,” said Shirl LaBarre, of Hayward, noting that she values the environment and supports the mine project.

The population of Iron County dropped more than 20 percent from 1960 to 1970, and fell another 14 percent from 2000 to 2010 with the loss of jobs that have not been replaced.

Proponents of the measure have said existing law dissuades companies from looking at Wisconsin and the bill would bring the state in line with neighbors Michigan and Minnesota in terms of permitting.

A draft mining bill released this spring that contained language to fast track mining proposals was shelved.

Gogebic Taconite put its plans on hold in June after concluding existing laws could lead to lengthy environmental reviews by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The proposal eases water protections, reduces restrictions on waste rock disposal and would reduce legal challenges.

To Mike Wiggins, tribal chairman of the Bad River Indian Reservation that lies in the watershed of the proposed mine, the bill would sacrifice a legacy of environmental support.

“This is about making radical changes to the state’s mining and water quality laws that protect an area that is known around the world — Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands,” Wiggins said. “These are places that people come to from all over the world because of the quality of the environment.”

Environmental concerns posed by mining include the drawdown of water that supplies public and private wells, possible loss of wetlands and noise from blasting and other activity.

The bill would require the DNR to approve mining permits within 360 days, according to the Wisconsin Legislature’s research arm. The process now takes at least 2-1/2 years.

State Senator Bob Jauch, a Democrat whose district includes the proposed mine, said the bill is essentially the same as one shelved last spring. Jauch may be targeted for recall because opponents do not believe he has done enough for the mine.

“When people say that are laws do not work, there is a copper mine in Ladysmith that was permitted in three years under the existing law,” Jauch said.

Editing by David Bailey, Jerry Norton and Richard Chang

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