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SENATE (copy)

Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Republican from northern Wisconsin: “We want Wisconsin to have a high bar for making sure that we protect the environment, and anyone that wants to come here and mine in Wisconsin, they’re going to have to meet those standards.”

A state Senate committee voted Wednesday on party lines to approve a bill that would end an effective moratorium on sulfide mining in Wisconsin.

Members of the Senate Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee approved several amendments to the legislation, first introduced in August by Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield.

One amendment would require that technology at a proposed mining site be capable of meeting state environmental standards.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, objected to using the word "capable," questioning how mining companies would prove capability and whether there would be any "wiggle room" within the definition. 

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.

Tiffany said he thinks the state has limited itself with the word "proven," setting parameters that don't allow for the consideration of new technologies. Sen. Patrick Testin, D-Stevens Point, who worked on the amendment, said it was written so that "as technology evolves and changes, (we're) giving agencies the flexibility to review new technologies."

"I don’t think there’s much wiggle room at all for the regulators," Tiffany said. "The (Department of Natural Resources) regulator is going to have to make that decision, and we’re going to have to trust them. And I trust them."

The committee approved another amendment that would require an applicant to submit a plan and be granted a permit from the DNR before starting any bulk sampling activity. 

Two additional amendments were approved that would effectively eliminate the "irrevocable trust in perpetuity" currently required of sulfide mining companies to ensure funding to pay for any future environmental costs.

Under the amendments, the trust agreement is replaced with two separate bonds. One would require a mining company to file a bond before mining begins to cover "unforeseen remedial contingencies" — such as spills or leaks — for 40 years after mining is completed. The second would require the company to demonstrate financial responsibility when the mine is closed to cover "reasonably anticipated costs" — such as repairs and replacements — up to 250 years after the mine's closure.

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Erpenbach argued against undoing the state's existing law, passed with bipartisan support, and "moving it into a very substantial unknown."

"We're going from 'You need to prove this first' to 'Tell us how you are capable maybe of doing this,'" Erpenbach said. "This is about making sure we have an environment we can pass onto the next generation and we can say we did the best job that we possibly could. With this legislation we are not doing that, we are taking a step backwards."

Tiffany argued that the bill "does not change any numeric environmental standards," adding that local municipalities that don't want mining in their community will have opportunities to prevent it from happening. 

The only certainty offered under the current moratorium, Tiffany said, is "there will be no more mining in the state of Wisconsin."

"Americans want to make things once again and I believe Wisconsin should do its part," Tiffany said. "This is another step in bringing more manufacturing to our state and to our country."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.