The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has produced a Sunday editorial generally supportive of a bill that rewrites significant portions of Wisconsin law to enable an iron ore mine in Northern Wisconsin.
You can read it here, and, to be fair, I will also reproduce it in text below.
Some quick reactions:
* The editorial board says it hopes the GOP legislative leadership does not rush the bill through to passage without fair consideration of sound amendments.
In fact, that has been exactly what has been happening because the bill is Scott Walker's #1 priority, and he and the GOP are still smarting over the bill's defeat last year.
On the matter of credible consideration of substantial changes, ask Democratic State Sen. Tim Cullen how his alternative proposal, created with public and scientific input, fared in final bill drafting.
And there would be little need for amendments if the bill-drafting process hadn't been open to the mining company and closed to officials and experts representing environmental issues and Native Americans living downstream from the mine site with a water-based rice-growing culture.
* The editorial does not state the dimensions of the mine, which are, in phase one 4.5 miles long, a half-mile wide and 1,000 feet deep. The mine could eventually stretch to 22 miles long. For comparison's sake, it is less than 4.5 miles from UW-Milwaukee to City Hall downtown, or from Madison's City Hall to the Oscar Mayer plant.
Open pit mining by the multiple mile, after removing the pristine Penokee Hills that rise to about 1,200 feet, needs to be imagined:
* The editorial board expresses faith that the DNR staff can consider a mining permit without caving to political pressures.
Where is the evidence for such a statement? Remember that the DNR did not even let its in-house wolf expert testify at hearings on the wolf hunt. And where is any DNR assessment of the acid mine drainage matter, since the agency has known since 2010 that this bill, like its earlier iteration, was coming?
Moreover, why should it even be necessary to worry that political pressures might be brought to bear on the DNR?
I'll tell you why: Because the redefinition of the DNR as business-friendly was made clear from the outset by Walker and the Department's charter-status reorganization.
And because the politicization of the current DNR management team has been intentional from the beginning, from Gov. Walker's selection of DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp for her "chamber-of-commerce mentality," to additional key senior appointments given to people with previous experience at major trade associations.
* The editorial board accepts the inflation of potential jobs related in one way or another to the iron ore mine from the initial figure of 700 to 5,000 - - but does not cite any hard evidence, or any outside and independent estimates beyond statements from mining supporters.
You'd think the Walker administration's well-documented failure to come remotely close after two years to its 250,000 new-private-jobs' pledge would give thoughtful people pause about accepting additional job predictions from Walker or his supporters - - and in this case, a company whose officials have donated generously to his campaign - - without citing unbiased, supporting documentation or expert opinion, at a minimum.
* The editorial board noted the bill retains a public hearing in the mining permitting process, but does not acknowledge that the bill erases the hearing's power.
That's because the bill re-positions the hearing from early in the process, where the mining company has to document its claims - - under oath - - to the tail end and after a DNR ruling.
In other words, the hearing becomes pro forma - - like the hearings held before the Legislature's mining committees a couple of weeks ago where the overwhelming anti-mining registrations will be ignored, testimony was cut off before all in attendance had spoken, and where emailed comments in place of in-person registrations were left out of the official report.
It's inadequate and dismissive to say, as does the editorial, "We think the important thing is to have a hearing," as if that covers the issue.
* The editorial board cites the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce's Scott Manley's interpretation of the bill's environmental strength the editorial board carried at length last week (without noting that Manley is a paid lobbyist, and as a WMC vice-president, a very powerful individual in the lead engine driving this train), and offered this observation about environmental standards and their preservation by the bill that has a maddening circularity:
Manley also argued that the legislation does not relax any environmental standards. That's true, but it's also irrelevant if the legislation allows the company to elude meeting those standards through exemptions. Some exemptions may be warranted in limited cases, but there can't be so many that the result is significant harm to the environment.
The entire point of the law, the entire reason to let the company help write the bill is to provide exemptions
, and that is why, I'd predict, that among its major and fatal weaknesses is the bill's goal to exempt the mining operation from the Public Trust Doctrine - - a set of protections for the protection of the state's interconnected waters that are defined as public rights in the State Constitution.
* The editorial board offers one line near the end addressing the Bad River Ojibwe Band's "serious opposition" to the bill. I am glad to see that acknowledgment. It had been missing from earlier editorial board commentary, but I would suggest that a single line about the Band's relationship to the issue that does not include the word "treaty" falls short of serious consideration for serious opposition.
All in all - - an underwhelming editorial. GOP legislators and the Governor will not have any problem with it.
Our View | Mining
Mining bill getting closer to what it needs to be
If the final result does what its proponents say it will do, the bill deserves approval by the Legislature.
Legislation aimed at easing the permitting process for an iron mine is expected to be approved by a key committee this week and will probably hit the floors of both the state Assembly and state Senate.
If the final result does what its proponents say it does - simplify the process while still protecting the environment - the bill deserves approval by the Legislature.
That's still a pretty big if, but changes made to the bill in the last several weeks are encouraging, and there's a good chance some legislators will attempt to add more safeguards. They deserve a fair hearing; we hope the Republican majority - which has made this measure its No. 1 priority in jobs bills - doesn't rush the bill through at the expense of sound amendments.
We also hope the bill is not so tightly drawn that it takes decision-making and discretion out of the hands of the professionals in the state Department of Natural Resources, which will be responsible for issuing the permit. The DNR should be trusted to deny or issue the permit based on the best data available and the best judgment of its employees.
We also think these professionals are more than capable of resisting any political pressures that might be brought to bear during the permitting process.
The bill's basic purpose is to open the door to Gogebic Taconite to build a $1.5 billion iron mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The company has said it needs changes in the regulatory process to provide it with more certainty so it can move ahead with the initial multimillion-dollar permitting process.
In a live online chat with members of the Editorial Board and public last week, Scott Manley of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a supporter of the bill, said the project would create nearly 5,000 jobs: 2,000 jobs to construct the mine, 700 mining jobs on site and another 2,100 jobs to support the mining activity.
Not all of those would be long-term jobs and not all would be in northern Wisconsin, but the mine would still have a significant impact on one of the poorest regions of the state.
The legislation is heading in the right direction. Among the amendments adopted by the Assembly and Senate mining committees were measures to:
Republicans also adjusted the bill to limit the ability of mining companies to fill waterways, though Democrats said tougher protections were needed. A 2-acre pond could still be filled with rock, they said.
- Require the DNR to try to reach a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to improve the chances the two agencies would work together to review a mining permit.
- Allow regulators and the company to establish a longer time frame than the bill's 420 days if all parties agree. There should be some additional leeway here for the DNR to act on a longer time frame.
- Require more testing of waste rock in the hope of identifying runoff from sulfide minerals that could harm groundwater or local streams. Sulfides interacting with air and water can be the source of acid mine drainage.
- Add stronger language designed to encourage the creation of new wetlands in the same watershed if wetlands are destroyed.
In addition, the bill does allow for a quasijudicial procedure called a contested case hearing after the DNR makes its decision. That was a major bone of contention and remains one this year with critics arguing for a hearing before the process is complete. We think the important thing is to have a hearing.
These are all good steps that strengthen the bill. We may see more this week. And we hope they address the concerns of the Bad River band of Chippewa who live downstream from the mine and who have raised serious objections.
But the bottom line is that we agree with the proponents that a bill can be created that will ease the way for a mine and still protect the environment. This bill may not be there yet, but it's getting close.