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Mining Impact: Run-off In Wisconsin

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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.

It's a site this deep and wide -- and the enormous quantities of waste rock associated with it -- that lies at the heart of the environmental debate.

If handled improperly, a mine has the potential to harm groundwater and destroy streams, wetlands and ponds that thread the landscape.

As environmentalists see it, an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Council, the research arm of the Legislature, cites numerous examples where safeguards would be rolled back by this year's mining bill.

But Scott Manley, a lobbyist with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, sees it differently.

"When you look at the totality of what is being proposed here, it is a very robust set of regulations that protect the environment," he said.

The legislative analysis, written nearly a year ago after an Assembly version of the bill was introduced, spells out areas where the mining legislation differs from current law.

The slope of waste rock, for example, could be piled steeper than existing law, potentially allowing for faster water runoff.

Restrictions on the location of mining waste rock within 1,000 feet of a lake or pond, or 300 feet from a stream or river, wouldn't apply if the DNR approves such activity with another environmental permit.

The bill replaces standards on withdrawals from surface and groundwater with broader language that says the DNR must allow such uses if it doesn't have a significant effect on public waters -- a term that troubles environmentalists because they believe it opens the door to abuse.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said that by omission, the mining bill could allow operators of an iron mine to fill in a pond or lake.

"This totally contradicts the statement that environmental standards are not lowered," asserted Meyer, a former secretary of the DNR under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

"The document lays out that there is a weakening of environmental standards."

But Manley dismisses such criticism as "scare tactics."

Manley said that grading and stabilization of waste rock have to conform to all state and federal laws.

Water runoff from the site has to be managed and treated in compliance with state storm-water laws, he said.

State water quality standards are not changed. "We just can't, as a state, exempt people from the (federal) Clean Water Act."

Manley said the addition of wording such as significant in the law relating to state waters is an attempt to clarify what could be left open to interpretation.

It is acceptable, he said, to have a minor impact, "but if you have a significant impact, the DNR shouldn't allow it," Manley said.

"We are talking about a permitting process that could cost $30 to $50 million."

As for filling in ponds or a lake, Manley said current law allows such impacts.

But a pond or lake by state law can also mean a "puddle the size of a dinner table," Manley said.

It's these types of waters that could be potentially filled by a mine operator -- but only if it meets criteria, such as not harming the flow of local streams, not degrading water quality or not affecting rights of riparian property owners, according to Manley.

"There are a lot of changes that could easily be seen as weakening of environmental regulations," said Ann Coakley, the DNR's top administrator on mining issues.

"But it's hard to say what they mean, in actuality. It's going to depend on location and design of the mine."

Last spring, when the mining bill collapsed, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, an appointee of Gov. Scott Walker, issued a statement saying the bill had become "just another political pinata" designed to deprive Walker of a win before his recall fight.

She asserted, however, that the bill would give the DNR "more tools to successfully site a potential iron ore mine."

The DNR sticks with that assessment. Deputy DNR Secretary Matt Moroney said last week the legislation would give the DNR the ability to conduct a rigorous review of a mining project.

"(Gogebic) is going to have a high hurdle to cross," Moroney said. "We want to make sure a mine is sited correctly. It's kind of our legacy as far as looking back and saying we were able to successfully site it."

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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