Gogebic Taconite’s abrupt decision this week to pull the plug on its proposed mining project in northern Wisconsin has created political controversy that will likely lead to many months of political finger pointing. In the heat of this debate, it is important we do not lose sight of what we learned from the company’s decision: It never had any intention to mine responsibly in Wisconsin.
Instead, the company tried to change our laws so it could profit by taking shortcuts and risks that are unacceptable to Wisconsin residents. When it was unsuccessful in eliminating environmental protections, it called it quits.
Time after time, Gogebic Taconite gave Wisconsin residents reason not to trust the company, with executives saying one thing, but doing another.
In January of last year, corporate executives stood in front of north woods residents in Ashland and said they would not seek changes to Wisconsin’s mining laws. Four months later, a 186-page bill clearly written by the company began circulating in the Capitol that would have gutted the environmental review and public input process for iron mine applications.
One of the worst bills the environmental community has ever seen, this bill would have allowed mining companies to fill wetlands, dump toxic mine waste near lakes, rivers and streams, and give residents little recourse if environmental laws were broken. In short, it gave out-of-state companies free rein to mine irresponsibly.
After public outcry, legislators withdrew the bill, only to introduce a nearly identical piece of legislation, the open-pit mining bill, months later.
The open-pit mining bill did not receive a warm reception. Through polls and at hearings across the state, one point became very clear: Wisconsin residents strongly oppose weakening environmental protections for mining. Even mine supporters spoke in opposition to the bill.
Despite strong opposition, Assembly Republicans passed the bill, putting the future of the mining law in the Senate’s hands.
Were it not for the bipartisan leadership of Sens. Dale Schultz and Bob Jauch, the open-pit mining bill would have passed and become law. Fortunately, these senators recognized the dangerous implications of the bill, listened to the voice of the people, and drafted an alternative by inviting all stakeholders to the table.
Their version of the bill gave the mining company the timeline certainty it asked for publicly without weakening environmental protections Wisconsin residents demanded stay strong. Unfortunately, Senate leadership and the mining company were unwilling to compromise and the bill was never brought to a vote.
When it became clear the company’s attempt to use legislators as political pawns to weaken Wisconsin’s environmental protections would fail, Gogebic Taconite pulled the plug on the project, blaming opponents of the open-pit mining bill for their decision.
Instead of pointing fingers and letting the actions of an out-of-state mining company divide our state, let us step back and remember why we have mining laws in the first place. A poorly vetted mine could devastate our beloved north woods, destroy sacred lands, and permanently scar our landscape and way of life. It could contaminate the water our families drink everyday and irreparably harm the rivers, lakes and streams we all love.
We all want more jobs, but we can also agree that jobs should not come at the expense of clean drinking water and invaluable natural resources. The 17 senators who voted against the open-pit mining bill deserve our thanks, not the blame for Gogebic Taconite’s departure. Gogebic Taconite chose to leave the state because it had no interest in responsibly mining here.
Mark Redsten is the executive director of Clean Wisconsin. Information: cleanwisconsin.org