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Mining discussion reveals divides, from jobs to environment

Sen. Tom Tiffany made clear during a WisPolitics.com luncheon on Thursday with Dem Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville that he was still looking at ideas from Cullen’s mining panel for possible inclusion in the final bill.

“I really say this in all sincerity: We’re really looking closely at some of the stuff that has come out of there and see if we can incorporate in the bill that we have currently,” the Hazelhurst Republican said, mentioning timelines for the permitting process as one area he might consider.

But given the debate between Tiffany, Cullen, and audience members over issues such as environmental regulations, the DNR and the job potential of an iron mine in the Penokee Range, a wide gulf remains between both sides.

Tiffany’s entreaty to interested parties to meet with him or send him ideas about possible inclusions in the bill prompted Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, to tell Tiffany from the audience that three things should be included in the revised bill: a “tweaked” timeline, proper water quality standards and doing something about the gap in skilled workers in manufacturing related to mining.

“I don’t hear us saying anything about what we’re going to do,” Taylor said. “Now I heard you say some money is going to come to Madison, but I didn’t hear us saying that we’re going to address that issue. Because I’m always told that this is going to help employment in Milwaukee."

Last session’s Joint Finance Committee version of the bill included a provision that directed $500,000 annually to a job training program for employees in the area of the mine and $500,000 annually for training manufacturing employees in Milwaukee related to mining equipment. That provision was taken out of the newest GOP bill. The money was widely considered to be an inducement to get Milwaukee Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter to vote for the bill, as Republicans needed one Democratic vote to get the bill through a narrowly divided Senate after GOP Sen. Dale Schultz voiced his opposition.

Tiffany, a lead author of the newest GOP iron mining bill, said his bill addressed environmental issues. He said the bill doesn’t lower the “numerical standards” for state air and water quality. But Cullen, using a sheet of changes from existing mining statutes, pointed out instances in which environmental protections seemed to be removed or weakened. Cullen also questioned Tiffany on language changes to subjective terms like “substantial” and the length of the bill.

“The bill’s changed to read: ‘Proposed mine is not likely to result in substantial adverse impacts to public health, safety or welfare,’” Cullen said. “So we go from a clear sentence to an unclear sentence where you add words like substantial and adverse which is uncertainty for the regulators to try to interpret.”

Tiffany responded that he took most of the 206-page bill right out of current statutes and rules so that there would be no confusion over how the DNR should interpret the language.

Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, was another lawmaker who questioned Tiffany’s bill. He said during the luncheon he never heard once during the initial debate and lobbying on the mining bill that changes to environmental protections would be needed. Cullen agreed with the assessment, but Tiffany once again said that the environmental standards weren’t changed in the bill.

“If you go back to the limits that we put in place, what I call standards, numbers, that the Department of Natural Resources will use when they’re reviewing those testing wells, when they’re looking at the rock structure, they’re going to say, ‘OK, does it exceed that limit?’” Tiffany said. “And if it doesn’t exceed that limit, that it meets our environmental standards here in Wisconsin, they’re going to be able to proceed.”

Tiffany said that, in comparison to decades ago, “we’re all environmentalists.” But he said the roadblocks put up by the “environmental left” are a sign of their true priorities and warned they’ll take advantage of vague language to slow progress.

“You have to do that because otherwise a person could say ‘Stepping on that blade of grass did damage,’ and trigger a lawsuit and all that,” Tiffany said. “So you have to put 'substantial' or 'significant.'”

Cullen said he’s not talking about small issues, pointing to the several lakes, rivers, trout streams and wetlands in comparison to the sheer size of the iron ore mine, which has been estimated to stretch for 4 ½ miles.

“So the fundamental issue here on all of this here is an enormous amount of overburden or waste, an enormous amount of water and how do you make it work to protect the environment,” Cullen said.

Even the job potential of the mine divided Cullen and Tiffany. Cullen questioned the figure of 700 direct new jobs, a figure from a Gogebic Taconite-commissioned study by NorthStar Economics. That study also said there would be a total of 2,800 direct and indirect long-term jobs created as a result of the mine.

“There’s nothing solid about that number,” Cullen said. “In fact, the mining company testified (Wednesday) in front of your committee that this is going to be the most efficient modern mine in the world and therefore it will be the mine that stays open with the economic ups and downs. ... Efficiency almost always means needing fewer people to do the job.”

Tiffany said that he didn’t have any reason to question the NorthStar study and said the exact estimate of jobs shouldn’t alter the need for a mine in the area.

“Is that the test we’re going give to every business that comes to Wisconsin?” Tiffany asked. “You’ve got to give us with the greatest certainty that you’re going to employ x number of people and do this amount of economic development?”

While one audience member expressed skepticism during the luncheon of DNR’s ability to adequately interpret the new statutes under Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, both Tiffany and Cullen came down in favor of DNR experts like Ann Coakley, who has been the department’s point person on the mining regulations.

Cullen, however, did express some concern over DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp’s role in promoting the mining bill from last session.

“I thought the secretary’s comments during the bill last session were more the kind of comments you’d hear from WEDC or someone in economic development as opposed to someone who was head of the DNR,” Cullen said.

-- Listen to clips from the luncheon.

-- Listen to the entire luncheon.


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