By John Rondy
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - A controversial plan to strip mine for iron ore in northern Wisconsin could proceed under a proposed state law designed to ease environmental rules.
The bill, which will be discussed in a public hearing in Milwaukee Wednesday, was introduced by majority Republicans in the state Assembly last week. The legislation is in response to plans by Gogebic Taconite of Hurley to construct a $1.5 billion mine in portions of Iron and Ashland counties.
A draft mining bill released this spring contained language that would have fast-tracked mining proposals, but the bill was shelved.
The current proposal eases water protections and reduces restrictions on waste rock disposal.
The company said on its web site the project could create 700 direct mining jobs, more than 3,000 construction jobs, and a total of $604 million in total annual economic benefit. But the plan has environmental advocates crying foul.
"I don't know how anyone could say with a straight face that this bill doesn't contain huge rollbacks to environmental laws and gut the public input process," said Amber Meyer Smith, director of government relations for Clean Wisconsin, an environmental advocacy group, in a statement.
Smith also said in an interview the bill would make it harder to challenge a Department of Natural Resources decision on a mining permit.
The bill takes aim at current laws that protect high-quality wetlands, drinking water sources, trout streams, and clean air and water, Smith says.
John Jagler, spokesman for Republican Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said the current permitting process is "uncertain, unpredictable and lengthy."
"That's why this bill is so necessary," Jagler said. "Existing law actually dissuades companies from looking here in Wisconsin, when you can do similar mining in Michigan and Minnesota with a much faster and more clear permitting process."
Gogebic Taconite, a subsidiary of a West Virginia-based mining corporation, the Cline Group, wants to build the 4 1/2-mile-long open-pit iron mine on the crest of a forested ridge near Mellen, Wisconsin.
Gogebic Taconite put its plans on hold in June after concluding existing laws could lead to lengthy environmental reviews by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Environmental concerns include the possible drawdown of water that supplies public and private wells, says Joe Barabe, the mayor of Mellen. Other dangers include potential loss of wetlands and noise from blasting and other industrial activity.
The region owes its livelihood almost entirely to mining, and has suffered with the decline of the industry, says Paul Sturgul, a Hurley attorney and chair of the Iron County citizen's advisory committee on mining.
"Many people here view the possibility of a return of mining - both iron and copper, including the proposed Orvana copper mine northeast of Ironwood - as the last gasp of the Gogebic Range," Sturgul said.
Hurley and Ironwood and all the northern Wisconsin communities near the Gogebic Range never recovered from the collapse of mining in the 1960s, says Sturgul, whose father worked in the mines.
The population of Iron County dropped over 20 percent in the decade between 1960 and 1970, and declined another 14 percent between 2000 and 2010. Faced with a declining and aging population, no other economic activity has replaced mining, Sturgul says.
"Between Hurley and Mellen is a 32-mile stretch where you have all these little towns, and they are all ghost mining towns," Barabe adds. "Mining was here, it's part of our heritage, and we would like to see it re-created." But he said that while the area needs jobs, it also needs environmental protections.
State Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat whose district includes the proposed mine, may be targeted for recall because opponents do not think he's done enough to support it.
"I don't think our existing law is completely broken," Jauch said. "There is nothing wrong with modernizing a 35-year old statute, to make it fair and flexible and workable, as long as we don't restrict the public voice, and weaken environmental standards."
(Writing and reporting by John Rondy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)