Legislation to lift Wisconsin's effective moratorium on sulfide mining is on its way to Gov. Scott Walker's desk after passing the state Senate on a 19-14 vote Tuesday. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, was the lone Republican to join Democrats in opposing the measure.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor supports the legislation and plans to sign it into law.
Supporters of the bill argue it allows conversations about mining to occur that cannot happen under current law. Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who authored the bill with Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, emphasized that companies that want to mine in Wisconsin will have to work with local communities in order to do so.
"Any company that wants to do that, they're going to have to get the social license," Tiffany told reporters after the Senate adjourned. "If there's one thing I learned after the ferrous mining bill, is that that social license is very important, and any company that wants to come into Wisconsin, they're going to have to work with local communities. That's just the way it is. And the companies understand that."
Under current law, a mining company must prove a sulfide mine can operate for 10 years and be closed for another 10 without polluting groundwater or surface waters with acid rock drainage. That legislation was passed with near-unanimous, bipartisan support in 1998 and signed into law by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Opponents of the new legislation are concerned with the removal of the so-called "prove it first" requirement.
If a sulfide mine could operate safely, argued Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, the existing law wouldn't have prevented it from operating in Wisconsin.
"We must safeguard access to clean water, land and air for our children," said Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, who said the bill would "dramatically impact our state’s ability to regulate mining facilities and protect our environment."
Hansen represents northeastern Wisconsin, where several county boards and local governments have voted to oppose a proposed sulfide mine to extract zinc, gold, copper and silver from an area in Upper Michigan located about 150 feet from the Menominee River.
Conservation groups and tribal leaders say the new legislation would put the state's long-term environmental integrity at risk in exchange for short-term profits. But the bill's supporters say technology has advanced to allow Wisconsin to benefit financially from mining without jeopardizing its environment.
In sulfide mining, once rock is extracted from the pit, a chemical process separates the unwanted “tailings” — about 90 percent of the material — from the desired metals — for instance, gold, zinc, copper and silver. One of the chemicals used in the separation process is cyanide.
The tailings are mostly sulfide, which, when mixed with air and water, form a toxic acid that acts as a long-term pollutant, turning rivers bright orange. Tailings can be neutralized with alkaline material like limestone.
The bill has been amended several times since its introduction, including an amendment that will delay its implementation for six months after it is signed into law and another that would put mining operations on hold during a legal challenge. The state Assembly approved the legislation last week, with four Republicans joining all Democrats in opposing it.
Hutton said last week it would likely be four or five years before a mining company would launch an operation in Wisconsin, and noted a local government could still prevent a mining operation from coming to the community.
Tiffany has previously said he believes there are exploration companies prepared to start work in Wisconsin if the bill becomes law. He said he expects Canadian companies Highland Copper Company and Aquila Resources would have an interest in the state's mineral deposits.