The most divisive issue surrounding state mining legislation is whether a prospective iron mine developed under a new law would pose irreparable harm to the environment.
Environmentalists believe that a bill defeated by a single vote in the Senate in March would have weakened environmental protections, and they point to a nonpartisan legislative analysis showing some protections would have been chipped away.
But business interests argue that the bill was chock full of safeguards, and that underlying standards in state law aren't going away.
Lawmakers return to Madison next month when mining reforms will be front and center, as Republicans with stronger majorities in both houses take up legislation that would ease the way for construction of a massive iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties.
The mining bill that narrowly missed passing will be the template for updates, said Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), who was elected to the Senate in November and will chair a Senate panel with mining responsibilities.
Tiffany said the mining bill will incorporate changes from a wetlands law passed this year that environmental groups opposed.
But he was noncommital on prospective legislation being put forth by Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville), who chaired a mining panel when Democrats controlled the Senate after recall elections this year. His measure would keep existing environmental protections in place.
At the core of mining reform are numerous changes in state law the Department of Natural Resources must use to assess a mining application and judge whether a prospective mine, the industrial plant to process the ore, and related infrastructure will cause undue harm to air quality and surrounding streams, wetlands and groundwater.
The environmental debate is among a knot of nettlesome issues that still need to be sorted out:
How can Wisconsin give a mining applicant more certainty about the state review process by setting deadlines for regulators to finish their work?
Cullen's bill, for example, had input from the Wisconsin Mining Association, and the measure he is pushing would cut red tape and speed up the state's review process. Business interests and the operator of the proposed mine, Gogebic Taconite, are in favor of making the review process more predictable, but they prefer this year's bill to Cullen's as a starting point.
Can the proposed mine between Mellen and Hurley be constructed in such a way that it will satisfy new authority of the Bad River band of Lake Superior Chippewa?
The Bad River have federal approval to regulate water quality and quantity standards on tribal lands that lie along Lake Superior and downstream from the site of a mine.
Can lawmakers write a bill that won't conflict with the role of federal regulators, thereby thrusting a mining applicant into dealing with bureaucracies on separate tracks?
The Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency all have a hand in reviewing a mining application.
Gogebic Taconite is proposing to construct a $1.5 billion open pit mine atop a ridge that spans the two counties. One wall of the mine would plunge 1,000 feet; the other would drop 700 feet. Over the planned first phase of about 35 years, the pit would run for about 4 miles.
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