Capitol Report – Mining: At what cost?
By State Representative, Leon D. Young
Wisconsin stands on the cusp of passing some form of new mining legislation. Depending upon who is queried, it could be the biggest boon or boondoggle that the state has seen in quite some time. Moreover, in these difficult and uncertain economic times, the allure of high-paying, family-sustaining jobs sounds most enticing to the vast majority of state elected officials. But, what potentially is the “real cost” of lifting the mining moratorium to the resident of this state?
The Badger State’s economic reliance on iron mining is well established.
One need not look any further than the state flag, which bears an image of a miner, to grasp the importance that this industry has had in shaping Wisconsin’s early history. Equally true, Wisconsin also has a long and progressive tradition in conserving its precious natural resources; and historically has been recognized for its environmental leadership.
Proponents of Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) argue that that the GOP’s version of the bill is widely misunderstood. Moreover, they make the case that the bill does not alter a single water-quality, groundwater or air-quality standard.
In addition, proponents advance some rather impressive economic arguments for enacting this legislation: the project would create an estimated 2,200 construction jobs; 700 initial jobs at the mining site and 1,400 jobs on-site when the mine reaches full capacity; and these jobs would pay an average of $82,000.
But, as generally is the case, the devil rests in the detail. SB 1, as currently written, could open the door to significant environmental impact, at the very least through language that allows the company to apply for exemptions to regulations. Of equal concern, there is also some question over whether sulfides in the rock above the iron ore could lead to acid drainage into nearby waterways.
Under current law, the process to obtain a mining or prospecting permit lasts at least 2-1/2 years, and may take longer if a project is complex or generates significant public input.
SB 1 creates an unrealistic permitting timeline that completely undermines the collaborative work between the DNR and federal agencies. This, in essence, means that a mining applicant will have to spend more time and money trying to navigate the federal and state permitting processes independently. Thus, perpetuating greater business uncertainty.
The mining legislation’s ultimate goal must be twofold: first, to responsibly streamline the mining permit process, and second, to ensure that the current environmental safeguards and standards are met. This isn’t an either, or proposition. It’s good public policy and the residents of Wisconsin deserve nothing less.