MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans inched closer Wednesday to passing their divisive mining legislation, moving the proposal to the state Senate floor for a vote and triggering hours of debate with minority Democrats who contend the measure would open the door to devastating pollution.
Powerless to stop the bill, Democrats chose to stall. They started to rail against the measure around midday and were still at it as evening drew on. It was unclear when the Senate would vote on the measure.
Republicans hold an 18-15 edge in the chamber, making the bill's passage all but inevitable. It would next go to the Republican-controlled Assembly, where a vote is scheduled for next week. From there it would move to GOP Gov. Scott Walker.
Republicans have been working for nearly two years to help Gogebic Taconite dig an open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. Their bill would make sweeping changes to the state's mining rules to clear the company's regulatory path.
Republicans insist the measure would help the company create hundreds of jobs at the mine and pave the way for thousands more around the state. Walker, eager to deliver on job creation promises, wants to get the bill on his desk.
Democrats and conservationists, though, maintain the company's job promises are exaggerated. They say the bill loosens environmental protections and would allow the mine to pollute one of the state's last pristine areas.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday sounded the same themes they have for months. They complained the bill would clear the way for mining waste to contaminate area waters and rob local governments of mining tax revenue. They also ripped Republicans for not holding a public hearing in northwestern Wisconsin, blasted the measure as a sweetheart deal for Gogebic Taconite and predicted it would end up in court.
"The company's intent can be summed up in five words. Give us what we want," said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, whose district includes the mine site. "Our job is not to be Santa Claus for a mining company."
The bill's author, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, insisted the measure doesn't compromise the environment. He pointed out mining issues have been thoroughly vetted in a dozen hearings. As the debate neared five hours, Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, stood up and accused Democrats of launching a filibuster. He said the state Department of Natural Resources, which would grant any state mining permits, never would allow major environmental damage.
"Just saying bad things are going to happen doesn't mean they're going to happen," Grothman said.
Under the bill, the DNR would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision. Right now, the process is open-ended. The public couldn't challenge a DNR permit decision until after it was made, and damage a mine might cause to wetlands would be presumed necessary. Applicants would have to submit a plan to compensate for damage, however, which would include a proposal for creating up to an acre and a half of new wetlands for every acre impacted.
A mining company's permit application fees would be capped at $2 million plus the DNR's expenses for delineating wetland boundaries. Tax on a company's revenue would be split 60-40 between local governments and the state. Current law imposes no cap on application fees and calls for all taxes on revenue to go to local governments to offset mining impacts.
The bill also exempts mining companies from the state's $7 per ton recycling fee on waste materials. That exemption could result in a potential loss of up to $171 million annually the state would collect from Gogebic Taconite for environmental protection programs under current law, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
One of the bill's staunchest opponents is the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The tribe's reservation lies just north of the mine site, and members fear the mine would pollute the reservation's water and destroy their wild rice beds.
Tribal members gathered in a hearing room before the Senate session began in a show of opposition, pinning felt water-droplet cut-outs to their clothing. As debate began in the Senate, they joined with the usual daily group of about 100 protesters two floors down in the Capitol to sing songs, play drums, dance and hold anti-mine signs.
"It's a sad day," said Annie Maday, a 60-year-old Bad River tribal council member. "Scary is not the word for it. It's devastating. They're going to destroy my home."
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