The company seeking to build a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin is lobbying for legislation that would dramatically shorten the permitting process for such operations, from seven years or more to less than a year.
Lobbyists and officials with Gogebic Taconite, or GTac, have approached numerous legislators with their proposal. State Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, said company officials met with him twice recently to lay out their legislative agenda.
He said company officials indicated to him that they would like to see legislation approved by July 1, when the state Legislature recesses. Also included in proposed changes to the state's mining law would be provisions that eliminate contested case hearings, which allow the public to challenge a mining company's permit application, and an exemption that would allow mining in high-quality wetlands.
"They have a plan," said Jauch.
Matt Fifield, managing director of Gogebic, confirmed that the company has worked with legislators on such a proposal though he declined to disclose details. He said the company has been in contact with State Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, and State Sen. Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee.
Zipperer said Friday that he and Honadel were in northern Wisconsin visiting with residents about the proposed mine. He said legislation is being drafted and that a version should be out next week. At the heart of the legislation, he said, will be a much shorter time frame for consideration of iron mining permits.
"The time frame now is that there really isn't a time frame," said Zipperer. "It's indefinite."
Gogebic has proposed building the mine in Ashland and Iron Counties in the Penokee Range, the headwaters of the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior. A study commissioned by the company showed the open pit iron mine would support 2,834 jobs in a 12-county region of northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula and generate a total economic impact of $604 million a year.
Jauch, who said he needs more information before taking a stand on the proposed mine, said there are several aspects of the permitting changes he finds disturbing. Although he said he agrees the current permitting process could be streamlined, he said he's concerned about the shortened timeline proposed by the company. Under the Gogebic plan, the state Department of Natural Resources would have to make a decision within 300 days of receiving a company's application.
"I truly question whether you can do everything you need to do in 300 days," Jauch said.
Ann Coakley, who handles mining permits for the DNR, said the amount of time required to obtain a mining permit under current law depends on the complexity of the project. The Flambeau copper mine near Ladysmith took about four and one-half years. She said the shortest amount of time required is probably about three and one-half years but added that most people cite five to seven years as the time period. A permit application from Crandon Mining to build a zinc and copper mine was under consideration for 10 years before the company dropped its request.
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Fifield said the proposed legislation is based on mining regulations in Michigan and Minnesota. He said in Minnesota, permit applications must be acted upon in 150 days.
Fifield said Wisconsin's current mining laws are written primarily for so-called sulfide mines which extract metals such as zinc and copper using chemicals that can potentially pollute nearby waters. But he said ferrous, or iron mines, are less damaging because rock is pulverized and the iron is removed using magnets rather than toxic chemicals. Because of this, Fifield said, a more streamlined permitting process is reasonable.
The current permitting process, Fifield said, is so cumbersome that Crandon Mining spent $70 million over 10 years for permits to mine zinc and copper in northern Wisconsin and eventually withdrew its application.
"That was a process that effectively had no end," said Fifield. "It really gave us pause."
Fifield also said that if the current law isn't changed, the company would have to consider whether to move forward with the project. "I think we would have to re-evaluate," he said.
Jauch also said he objects to parts of the proposal that would diminish the public's ability to challenge a permit application, short of filing a lawsuit.
"There's nothing wrong with making sure the regulatory process is not overly burdensome," Jauch said. "But it is another thing to deny citizens their influence."
The proposal is already drawing fire from environmentalists.
"A fast-track review process is a recipe for disaster," said Dave Blouin, mining committee chairman for the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club.
According to data from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, executives with Gogebic Taconite as well as members of the law firm that represent the company, contributed a total of more than $40,000 in 2010 campaign contributions to Republican candidates involved with the mining issue — Gov. Scott Walker, Honadel, Shirl Labarre, and Jeff Plale. Labarre, Hayward, and Plale, South Milwaukee, both lost their elections.