A bill sponsored by Senator Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn) and Representative Jeff Mursau (R-Crivitz) would speed up the process by which companies get approval from state agencies and departments for resource extraction projects. This bill, part of the Legislature and Governor Walker’s "Special Session" on the jobs crisis, is being flagged as a "backdoor attempt to promote mining," according to State Representative Brett Hulsey (D-Madison), and as a specific pathway to ease the approval of the controversial iron ore mine project in Ashland and Iron counties.
Assembly Bill/Senate Bill 24 (AB/SB-24) contains, among many others, provisions that would limit public oversight over Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permits, and allow the DNR to deny a public hearing on permit requests.
The bill would forbid the DNR from denying permits to companies on the basis of insufficient information. AB/SB-24 would also reduce the area of protected wetlands in Wisconsin by limiting the state’s Areas of Special Natural Resource Interest (ASNRI).
Moreover, the DNR would have to grant automatic extensions of five years on permits, "tripling the amount of time a permit goes without public review," according to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters (WLCV).
When similar legislation that would expedite the DNR approval process failed last June, Gogebic Traconite, the Florida-based corporation that plans to build the mine, halted its $1.5 billion project to extract what it says are billions of tons of iron buried underneath the Northern Wisconsin wetlands.
The project has since drawn much attention from different environmental organizations such as the River Alliance of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, the Midwest Environmental Advocates, as well as Native American leaders and organizations that reject the use of what they see as destructive development on sovereign and ancestral lands.
According to Kim McCarthy, Chairman of the conservationist organization Trout Unlimited, the June version of the bill included "loosening of clean air and clean water standards; there was loosening of wetland standards." More controversially, a provision in the bill would have allowed mining companies to seize private lands and legally "dump waste from their operations" on them.
After the bill failed in June, Gogebic Traconite stated that they would consider projects in neighboring states until the legislature changed the law and sped the project’s approval. Now, the Legislature has put the bill on the fast track, with hearings scheduled and already taking place this week beginning Wednesday, October 26, eight days after it was introduced.
Reportedly, Governor Walker, whose name is on the bill, wants the bill signed by the beginning of November. The process will be especially quick because the Legislature is in a special session, according to a WLCV release.
The state’s business lobby, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), published a brochure in which it claims that the potential environmental costs of the proposal are outweighed by its economic benefits.
"From mining equipment manufacturers in the Milwaukee area like P&H Mining and Bucyrus, to numerous foundries and suppliers throughout Wisconsin, the project will have a profoundly positive impact on jobs and our economy," the WMC declared. "The project will undergo an extensive and comprehensive review to ensure the environment is protected."
According to the Capital Times newspaper, the mine would employ 700 people if approved. Gogebic Traconite claims that the iron mine would support over 2,000 jobs and generate an economic output of $604 million annually.
Pro-mining groups and other proponents claim that the bill has little to do with mining, as the bill involves changes to water use regulations, the way the public is involved in the process and speeding up project application reviews. In fact, Rep. Kedzie and Rep. Mursau are calling AB/SB-24 "the Pier law," noting that "significant changes are necessary to address confusion and complications with the law," according to a joint press release issued last week.
However, the bill summary issued by Governor Walker’s office states that the bill will address "the placement of deposits and structures on the beds of navigable waters and the removal of materials from the beds of navigable waters," confirming the connection between the Penokee wetlands mine proposal and SB/AB-24.
Representative Hulsey provided statistical information indicating that, in the past 20 years, the DNR has approved 98 percent of all 77,713 permit applications, indicating that DNR standards are already low. Other critics of AB/SB-24 are more vocal about the agenda behind this "jobs" special session.
"Governor Scott Walker and the Legislative Republicans revealed their long awaited ‘job creation’ agenda, which includes rolling back decades of environmental protections, repealing comprehensive sex education and allowing discrimination against women and minorities," said State Representative Chris Taylor in a press release that refuted the bill’s job-creating prospects.