MAC: Mines and Communities

Wisconsin Tribes unite against new mining bill

Published by MAC on 2012-01-23
Source: Associated Press, Reuters, Ashland Current

Native American tribes in the US state of Wisconsin have come out in force to block a proposed mining bill which would relax current environmental permitting processes.

Tom Maulson, president of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Indians, claims the bill is "page after page of deregulation, giving a 'boom and bust industry' free rein to rape the environment that we all depend on".

Tribes turn out to oppose mining bill

Associated Press

12 January 2012

HURLEY - American Indian tribes came out strongly against a mining bill that would streamline the permitting process for a proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin, telling a legislative hearing Wednesday that mining could irreparably harm the pristine region.

Members of the Bad River, Red Cliff and other tribes attended the hearing, which drew an overflow crowd of about 600 people

The Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business held the first public hearing in northern Wisconsin on the bill. The meeting was scheduled following criticism of the previous hearing being held near Milwaukee, about 300 miles away from where the mine would be.

Patricia Aiken-Buffalo, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Chippewa, spoke against the bill. She said she worries about what pollution would do to water and to rice, which she said is harvested by tribal members and is needed to feed their children.

"I have a 2-1/2-year-old cousin, Stella. All I could think about is will she have water when she's 7? I could just hear her cries. If this mine goes through the water will look like this glass," Aiken-Buffalo said, holding up a glass of dark water that she had altered to illustrate her point.

Backers of the mine say it would bring more than 700 mining jobs to an economically depressed area and create 2,000 ancillary jobs. But opponents say they don't believe responsible mining is possible and that the bill was written to cater to the needs of Gogebic Taconic, which hopes to open the mine in the Penokee Hills near Lake Superior.

Gogebic President Bill Williams has said the bill "is not issuing a permit" but rather "issuing a process for the DNR to implement."

"Environmentally, this bill is a disaster," said Tom Maulson, president of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Indians. "It is page after page of deregulation, giving a 'boom and bust industry' free rein to rape the environment that we all depend on. Our tribe does not support putting workers into jobs that pose safety and health risks."

If approved, the bill would require the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to approve or deny an iron-ore mine application within 360 days. The bill also would eliminate any challenges to the DNR's permitting decisions and would limit who can sue over permit violations.

The bill also would lessen standards for water withdrawals and redirect half of the state tax on iron ore sales to the state instead of municipalities where it is currently earmarked.

Many of those who backed the bill did not support the 50-50 tax split.

"I believe that 100 percent of this (tax) money needs to come into Iron and Ashland counties," Wayne Nasi of Hurley said. "That money would be our lifeblood for our communities. We need that money to come up here. We could put a percentage of that money aside to clean up existing areas we know have been polluted. We could make the northwoods even more pristine."

Supporters of the bill touted the jobs that a new mine would bring.

"People in Wisconsin are crying for jobs. The people of Ashand and Iron county are dying for jobs. We're sitting in Iron County, a county that lost nearly 14 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010," said Wisconsin's State Treasurer Kurt Schuller. He said the bill "holds the cure" for the area's economic woes.

Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald has said he hopes to vote on the bill Jan. 19. Passing the iron-mining bill is one of the top priorities of the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Legislature should scrap the open-pit mining bill

By Kerry Schumann

Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

28 January 2012

The Wisconsin Senate should not follow the Assembly over a cliff on the open-pit mining bill.

On Thursday, the Assembly voted to weaken laws protecting our health and allow out-of-state mining companies to expose our families to deadly chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and lead.

The open-pit mining bill (AB 426) explicitly says that groundwater contamination by mining companies is acceptable. In Wisconsin, where a majority of our drinking water comes from groundwater, this is a serious health hazard.

These chemicals are odorless and tasteless but very toxic. If they get into your water, chances are, you won't know until it's too late.

I'm a mom. And I shouldn't have to wonder whether the glass of water I'm giving my daughter is contaminated with arsenic, lead or mercury. Neither should you. We all have a right to safe, clean drinking water.

Studies conducted on taconite mining in Minnesota and Michigan show that aggressive excavation of taconite and the processing of taconite pellets can cause toxic heavy metals - including arsenic, lead, and mercury - to leach into air and water.

For citizens living in the communities around a mine who are drinking groundwater or eating contaminated fish, the consequences can be fatal.

Arsenic has been linked to kidney, liver, lung and bladder cancer. Exposure to mercury can lead to neurological problems in adults and severe developmental disabilities in fetuses, infants and children. Mining is the largest source of mercury in the Lake Superior basin.

Lead is especially harmful to children because their bodies absorb more of it and the young brain and nervous system is more sensitive to it. When children are exposed to lead, it can cause learning and behavior problems as well as stunted growth.

When the Assembly passed the open-pit mining bill, legislators adopted a few small amendments that they say address the concerns of the thousands of citizens who have voiced opposition to this bill.

Here's the truth: There's not enough lipstick in the world to cover up this pig.

These amendments do nothing to ensure that our drinking water and our pristine North Woods are protected.

The bill still allows the state to issue permits to a mining company even if public health and safety aren't assured.

It still removes the public's voice by reducing public hearings and the rights of individuals to demand adequate protections for their water.

It still gives mining operations a pass on meeting water standards that all other industries must meet, and allows mines to physically alter streams, wetlands and lakes.

The bottom line: The open-pit mining bill still allows mining operations to ignore many of the environmental protections that keep our drinking water clean, our rivers flowing and our groundwater abundant.

The Assembly turned a deaf ear to the thousands of citizens who voiced opposition to the bill and would be most affected by it. Given the immense public outcry that has resulted, the state Senate would be unwise to follow suit.

Rather than try to fix the unfixable, state senators should scrap the open-pit mining bill and put the health of Wisconsin residents first.

Kerry Schumann is executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

Wisconsin debates law to allow iron ore strip mining

By John Rondy


14 December 2011

MILWAUKEE - A controversial plan to strip mine for iron ore in northern Wisconsin could proceed under a proposed state law designed to ease environmental rules.

The bill, which will be discussed in a public hearing in Milwaukee Wednesday, was introduced by majority Republicans in the state Assembly last week. The legislation is in response to plans by Gogebic Taconite of Hurley to construct a $1.5 billion mine in portions of Iron and Ashland counties.

A draft mining bill released this spring contained language that would have fast-tracked mining proposals, but the bill was shelved.

The current proposal eases water protections and reduces restrictions on waste rock disposal.

The company said on its web site the project could create 700 direct mining jobs, more than 3,000 construction jobs, and a total of $604 million in total annual economic benefit. But the plan has environmental advocates crying foul.

"I don't know how anyone could say with a straight face that this bill doesn't contain huge rollbacks to environmental laws and gut the public input process," said Amber Meyer Smith, director of government relations for Clean Wisconsin, an environmental advocacy group, in a statement.

Smith also said in an interview the bill would make it harder to challenge a Department of Natural Resources decision on a mining permit.

The bill takes aim at current laws that protect high-quality wetlands, drinking water sources, trout streams, and clean air and water, Smith says.

John Jagler, spokesman for Republican Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said the current permitting process is "uncertain, unpredictable and lengthy."

"That's why this bill is so necessary," Jagler said. "Existing law actually dissuades companies from looking here in Wisconsin, when you can do similar mining in Michigan and Minnesota with a much faster and more clear permitting process."

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.

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.

Environmental concerns include the possible drawdown of water that supplies public and private wells, says Joe Barabe, the mayor of Mellen. Other dangers include potential loss of wetlands and noise from blasting and other industrial activity.

The region owes its livelihood almost entirely to mining, and has suffered with the decline of the industry, says Paul Sturgul, a Hurley attorney and chair of the Iron County citizen's advisory committee on mining.

"Many people here view the possibility of a return of mining - both iron and copper, including the proposed Orvana copper mine northeast of Ironwood - as the last gasp of the Gogebic Range," Sturgul said.

Hurley and Ironwood and all the northern Wisconsin communities near the Gogebic Range never recovered from the collapse of mining in the 1960s, says Sturgul, whose father worked in the mines.

The population of Iron County dropped over 20 percent in the decade between 1960 and 1970, and declined another 14 percent between 2000 and 2010. Faced with a declining and aging population, no other economic activity has replaced mining, Sturgul says.

"Between Hurley and Mellen is a 32-mile stretch where you have all these little towns, and they are all ghost mining towns," Barabe adds. "Mining was here, it's part of our heritage, and we would like to see it re-created." But he said that while the area needs jobs, it also needs environmental protections.

State Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat whose district includes the proposed mine, may be targeted for recall because opponents do not think he's done enough to support it.

"I don't think our existing law is completely broken," Jauch said. "There is nothing wrong with modernizing a 35-year old statute, to make it fair and flexible and workable, as long as we don't restrict the public voice, and weaken environmental standards."

(Writing and reporting by John Rondy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)

Mining proposal is modern-day colonialism

By Claudia Broman

Ashland Current

13 December 2011

A good part of my Saturday was spent reading the 183-page mining hot potato that the Assembly GOP unveiled at a press conference last week.

It is detestable that a public hearing about this bill is not being held in the northern reaches of the state. Especially since we all know that this bill is not about mining in La Crosse, mining in Walworth County or mining in Neenah. This is mining legislation that was prompted by a company wanting to mine in the Penokee Range of Ashland and Iron counties.

Having a public hearing at the State Fair Grounds in Milwaukee County about a mining bill that has more to do with day-to-day life in Ashland and Iron counties than the insides of Milwaukee County factories is a partisan, political ploy set about to make life easier for politicians and industrial representatives who don't want to be bothered with "the hillbillies" of northern Wisconsin.

Let me put this another way. It's easier to get legislation passed, in general, if the hearing for the legislation is held in a location where it's easier to get people to say they like the legislation. If the public hearing were held in the North Woods, who knows what people would say. They might actually talk about topics that would hold up the legislation or, God forbid, require legislators to draft something more palatable or even require them to give up altogether.

The bill is huge. It's not easy reading; it's more like wading through mud. But one important difference that I see between what Wisconsin's current mining laws state and the bill is this: Current law requires a mining permit and any other approval required under state law for a mine to operate; the proposed law would still require a mining permit, but it would also do away with many of the approvals that a mining operation would need to have under current law.

Another big difference I see has to do with taxes. Under the current mining law, metallic mining operations are taxed based on a percentage of net income from the sale of the ore or minerals being mined, and then all that money is put into a fund that is managed by local counties and municipalities where the ore is being mined. The bill cuts the availability of this tax revenue to local municipalities and counties by half and gives the other half of the tax revenue to the state's general fund.

Under the state's current law, if someone applies for a metallic mining permit, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources eventually needs to hold a contested case hearing as well as a public informational hearing. A contested case hearing is similar to a court trial without a jury. There are witnesses and testimony. With the proposed law, only a public informational hearing would be required for such a mining permit - no contested case hearing would be necessary for a mining operation to be approved.

Moreover, under the state's current law, anyone upset with a DNR decision about a mining operation may request a contested case hearing about that decision or file a citizen suit against the DNR. The bill would take those due process rights away from Wisconsin citizens. Instead, a judicial review would be allowed as a challenge to a DNR decision, but no citizen suits would be allowed.

The DNR can deny a mining permit under current law if there is an archaeological site present that otherwise would be affected by a mining operation. The proposed law eliminates that exemption. So if there's a cemetery or an archaeological site present in an area where a mine would be located, the mining application could be approved anyway.

Current law doesn't give a timeline within which the DNR has to make a decision on a mining permit application. The proposed law says it has to be done within 360 days or else the mining permit is automatically approved. However, keep in mind that the bill also shortens the length of time a mining operation is liable for financial responsibility of monitoring waste sites after mining is complete by at least 20 years. Current law requires financial responsibility for at least 40 years.

Given all of the alterations in this bill that would have a direct effect on our resources and lives in northern Wisconsin, and the fact that a public hearing for the bill is not being held by the Assembly in any of our northern communities, I can't help but shake my head and cry foul.

What is happening in the northern reaches of the state is modern-day colonialism. In essence, what we are dealing with is a group of established industries and wealthy people from afar attempting to exploit the land, water and resources of the less well-to-do people who live here. We are being promised a lot, but nothing is down on paper except a proposal for cutting back environmental regulations and for the local community to lose half of the potential tax revenue were a mine to be established in our region. What does that tell you?

It tells me that we as a region are being silenced and set up for an industry to swoop in and conquer, limit the interest it actually takes in our communities and then, given the cuts to reclamation liability included in the mining proposal, get out easy before things get messy and let those desperate, northern hillbillies figure it out later.

Is that what we really want? I hope not.

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