By Mark Redsten, Executive Director

Earlier this week, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald’s office announced that a new mining bill would be unveiled Thursday, Dec. 8. Residents across Wisconsin should watch this bill closely to make sure it does not put the profits of wealthy out-of-state mining executives ahead of public health and environmental protection in our state.

An earlier version of the bill that circulated in the Capitol this spring would have largely gutted the environmental review and public input process for mine permit applications. It would have allowed for the dumping of toxic mine waste in floodplains, near rivers and streams and next to neighboring properties. In short, the last draft of the mining bill prioritized the profits of wealthy out-of-state mining executives over the health of Wisconsin residents and the health of our environment. By all accounts, it was one of the worst environmental bills in memory, and public outcry helped convince legislators to pull back and redraft the bill.

The attempt to rewrite Wisconsin’s mining laws comes as Gogebic Taconite, a subsidiary of the West Virginia-based mining corporation the Cline Group, proposes to build a massive open-pit iron mine in Northern Wisconsin. The company has currently halted progress on the project, saying it won’t move forward until legislators revise Wisconsin’s laws.

Any out-of-state mining corporation coming to Wisconsin should be able to operate under our current laws. A recent poll from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative organization, shows that a majority of Wisconsin residents don’t want our mining laws to change. Only 38 percent of Wisconsinites favor streamlining environmental regulations to create mining jobs in Northern Wisconsin, while 51 percent oppose weakening environmental regulations, according to the poll.

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that wealthy mining executives currently wield undue influence in the Legislature. In an interview on Wisconsin Eye’s Newsmakers in October, Gogebic Taconite president Bill Williams said that when legislators asked for the company’s opinions when drafting the original bill, it was as if they had said, “There is a Santa, and here it is, a Christmas list – what is it you want for Christmas?’”

Simply said, mining laws should not be written by mining executives like a Christmas list. They should be carefully constructed to protect the interests of Wisconsin residents. If laws are changed, they must reflect residents’ desires to balance the need for environmental protection with industrial development.

That is why it is particularly concerning that the Assembly Speaker’s office also announced that the Assembly plans to hold only one public hearing on the bill, and that it would likely be held in Madison or Milwaukee – hundreds of miles from Gogebic Taconite’s proposed mine site.

Residents across the state of Wisconsin deserve the opportunity to comment on this important bill, especially those in Northern Wisconsin who will likely be the most impacted by any changes to mining legislation.  We encourage legislators to schedule more public hearings on the bill and to include one near Gogebic Taconite’s proposed mine site.

Legislators scrapped the initial mining bill because residents from across the state took action, contacted their elected leaders and made it clear that they oppose rolling back environmental protections or public input in the mine permit process. Residents must once again pay close attention to the mining bill set to be unveiled Thursday. With the holiday season fast approaching, this bill should protect the health of our families and the environment, not make mining executives’ Christmas wishes come true.