MADISON — Republican legislators tried again Tuesday to streamline regulations they say caused a mining company to leave Wisconsin, reigniting one of the fiercest environmental debates the state has seen in decades.
The GOP has been working for more than a year to change the regulations in hopes of enticing Gogebic Taconite to open a huge open pit iron mine near Lake Superior. Republicans have made the effort the centerpiece of their job-creation plans, but conservationists have rallied against the mine, insisting it would devastate one of Wisconsin's last pristine areas.
A sweeping Republican bill to relax regulations died by one vote in the Senate in March, prompting the company to pull out of the state and focus on new exploratory work in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
But Republicans said Tuesday they were convinced they can entice the company back to Wisconsin. The new bill proposed Tuesday closely mirrors the failed legislation from last session, with provisions that give the state Department of Natural Resources up to 480 days to issue a mining permit; allow contested case hearings only after a permit decision has been made; and bar civil lawsuits that accuse the DNR of failing to live up to its duties.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker called on the Legislature to pass the bill quickly during his State of the State address on Tuesday evening, even inviting union workers who might work at the mine to join him on the Assembly dais during the speech.
Assembly Republicans jammed a news conference Tuesday to reveal the bill, taping a sign that read "Mining for Jobs" on their podium. They sounded the same themes they've been trumpeting for the last year, playing up mining's history in northern Wisconsin, pledging the bill wouldn't harm the environment and promising the legislation would set the stage for thousands of new mining-related jobs in the construction, service and manufacturing sectors.
"This affects our entire state," said Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, one of the bill's authors. "The jobs and the job cycles that will be created... will just be amazing."
Opponents already were circling. Democrats were angry Republicans didn't include any ideas a bipartisan mining committee led by Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, developed over the summer.
Cullen told reporters after the Republicans' news conference he plans to introduce his own bill on Friday. He said he believes the GOP's measure lowers the state's environmental standards, leaving it vulnerable to lawsuits that could delay any mining projects for years.
"This bill will not increase the chances of mining by one day," Cullen said.
"This really is a scam. These jobs probably will never, ever happen," said State Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. "I would just say if you're going to do it, do it right."
A coalition of conservation groups that includes the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited released a statement urging lawmakers to reject any changes to mining law, calling Gogebic Taconite's mining plans "the most destructive industrial project the state has ever faced."
"We remind legislators that they represent all of Wisconsin's citizens and the clean air and water we rely on, not one mining company with a hugely destructive proposals," Dave Blouin, chairman of the Sierra Club's Wisconsin chapter's mining committee, said in the statement.
"This is not your grandfather's mine. This is a 5,000 acre, open-pit in the middle of 16,000 acres of wetlands on the shore of Lake Superior," Anne Sayers from the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters said. "This is very different from what we've done in the past and it requires deep scrutiny."
But Bob Walesewicz, who lives in Iron County and spoke at the news conference, supports the plan.
"The practices that were done in the past, quite frankly, weren't regulated at all," he said. "I can proudly report that our water is clean and quite frankly, our environment is a pretty good environment to live in."
Both sides realize the future of the plan is in the hands of Republicans who control both the Senate and Assembly.
"Ultimately, Republicans are in charge so we're going to be able to enact our agenda," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington. "But I would rather try to sit at the table, see if there are areas we can come together on."
"They have the votes to do whatever it is that they want," added Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee. "But if they go in another partisan direction, if they continue down the wrong path that they did the last two years, it's going to show that we're not going to have jobs, we're going to continue to be divided and the people of Wisconsin are going to be frustrated."
And for now, at least when it comes to mining, that division continues.
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