Conservationists, business leaders and tribal leaders squared off Wednesday at the first public hearing on a Republican bill designed to kick-start an iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin.
The battle lines over Gogebic Taconite's plans for an iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior have been clear for months. Supporters insist the mine will be an economic god-send, creating hundreds of good-paying jobs that will re-energize the impoverished region. Environmentalists and tribal leaders, though, worry the mine will contaminate one of the most pristine regions in the state.
The dispute has grown into one of the most contentious environmental debates Wisconsin has seen in years. Assembly Republicans opened another front in the fight last week when they introduced sweeping legislation that would ease the state's rigorous mining permit process for Gogebic Taconite.
Scores of people on both sides spent hours waiting for a chance to sound off in front of the Assembly jobs committee Wednesday inside a state fair park pavilion. Committee aides said 150 people had registered to speak by mid-afternoon.
One of the first was Shirl LaBarre, who runs a plumbing business with her husband in Hayward. She pleaded with the committee to pass the bill, saying people in northern Wisconsin are desperate for work.
"I respect the earth. I respect the water. (But) we've got to have jobs. There's nothing now," she said. "It's relatively simple. It seems like you guys are making it more difficult."
John Senda, chairman of the Iron County Republican Party, called northwestern Wisconsin's economy "dysfunctional." He said the area is totally reliant on tourism, and those jobs pay next to nothing. He said the region has seen mining in the past and the environment hasn't suffered. Conservationists are resorting to scare tactics, he said.
"We still have trout and they don't glow," he said.
Marvin DeFoe is vice chairman of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior, whose reservation lies about 75 miles north of the proposed mine site. He told the committee he was speaking for the fish and the trees.
"My people would rather have clean water than a job," he said. "If we just focus on one element _ jobs _ we're going to miss the harm we cause."
Glenn Stoddard, an attorney for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior, ripped the bill, too, saying it was written specifically for one company. He warned the committee that even if the bill passes the Legislature jobs won't materialize for years because Gogebic Taconite still must obtain federal permits.
"It's a cruel hoax to say this is about jobs," Stoddard said.
The Penokee Hills run from Michigan's Upper Peninsula through Wisconsin's Iron and Ashland counties, where the unemployment rate is about 10 percent, more than 2 percentage points higher than the state rate.
The first phase of Gogebic Taconite's plans calls for mining a 4-1/2 mile stretch of the hills near Mellen, a city of about 900 people just south of the Bad River's reservation. Company officials say that phase likely will last at least 35 years, generating about $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue, creating 700 jobs for people in the area and 2,000 ancillary jobs for the region's service and transportation industries.
Conservationists say the mine would pollute one of the state's most pristine areas. The Bad River in particular fear the mine would contaminate the sensitive sloughs where they hold their traditional rice harvests.
Company officials have suspended their plans, though, saying they want assurances from legislators of a definite end point in the state Department of Natural Resources mine permitting process, which can take years to complete. Republican lawmakers, who see the mine as a tangible way to deliver on campaign promises to create jobs, spent most of the last year working on a bill.
The 183-page legislation released last week would require the DNR to approve or deny an iron mine application within 360 days, eliminate challenges to DNR permitting decisions along the way and limit who can sue over permit violations. It also would ease standards for water withdrawals and redirect half of a state tax on ore sales that currently is earmarked for municipalities near mines back to the state.
Gogebic Taconite president Bill Williams said after that hearing that he appreciates Republicans' efforts to put "common sense" into the permitting process.
"Those are the things that get the project off the ground," he said. Williams said people should realize the approval process will be based on scientific merit, not on "emotional heartache."
It's unclear what will become of the bill. The jobs committee wasn't expected to vote on the measure Wednesday, although Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald has promised a full Assembly vote early next year. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have created their own committee to consider changes to the mine permit process.
Rep. Mary Williams, R-Medford, took heat for scheduling the hearing in West Allis, a Milwaukee suburb some 300 miles from the Penokee Hills. Mine opponents and supporters alike complained they had to drive hours to be heard.
Republicans have said the location made sense because heavy equipment manufacturers that would benefit from the mine are based in the Milwaukee area. Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy echoed that stance in written remarks to the committee, saying the mine will have a huge impact on those businesses.
"This is an opportunity the entire state cannot afford to pass up," Sheehy said.
Williams told the crowd that the committee held an information hearing on mining in Hurley, a town near the proposed site, in October _ although the bill hadn't been released yet _ and state senators who represent the mine area can call for a hearing up north if they choose.
Fitzgerald issued a statement Wednesday afternoon praising Williams for holding the hearing in West Allis.
"... It is clear from the testimony today," Fitzgerald said, "that this bill will not only lead to thousands of jobs in northern Wisconsin but southeastern Wisconsin as well."