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Rob Hutton, Robin Vos

Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, discuss a bill to promote mining activity in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin's effective moratorium on sulfide mining would be repealed under legislation approved by the state Assembly on Thursday. The bill now awaits Senate action.

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, approved on a 53-38 vote, are concerned with the removal of the so-called "prove it first" requirement. Four Republicans joined all Assembly Democrats in opposing the bill. 

"This isn’t a moratorium. It just says certain conditions need to be met," said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh. "Removing those conditions suggests there's going to be some compromise of standards."

Conservation groups and tribal leaders say the legislation would put the state's long-term environmental integrity at risk in exchange for short-term profits.

But the bill's authors, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, argue mining can bring economic gains to northern Wisconsin without jeopardizing the environment.

"This bill simply ends that moratorium and allows for the discussion to take place," Hutton said. "Mining is a part of our future, and it should continue to be a part of the discussion for our growth in the economy."

Hutton argued the legislation does not change existing standards set by the state Department of Natural Resources, nor does it fast-track a mine or a permit. 

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.

"There are considerable trade-offs and opportunity costs," Hintz said. "You don’t get things like clean air and water back after you risk that exposure."

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, called the bill "a giveaway to the dirtiest industry in America."

The bill has been amended several times since its introduction. Those changes have earned the support of several Republican lawmakers who weren't inclined to support it, including several senators whose support will be needed to send the legislation to Gov. Scott Walker's desk. 

A broad amendment approved on Thursday included provisions to:

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  • ensure tax revenues from a mining operation stay within a local community
  • clarify that a 10,000-ton limit for bulk sampling includes all materials removed from the earth, not just minerals
  • specify that the DNR must determine proposed technology in a mining operation is "reasonably certain to result in compliance with these laws and rules at the proposed mining site"
  • put mining operations on hold during a legal challenge
  • delay the implementation date of the law for six months after it is signed

Hutton said 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. 

Supporters of the bill argue it allows conversations about mining to occur that cannot happen under current law. 

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.

The company owns two projects in northern Wisconsin: the Reef deposit in Marathon County, where gold reserves were found in the 1970s, and the Bend copper and gold deposit in northern Taylor County’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The company has said its priority is the Back Forty project in Upper Michigan, and it has "no near-term plans for the Wisconsin assets."

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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.