Two Wisconsin lawmakers on Thursday introduced a controversial proposal to repeal state law requiring mining companies to demonstrate that they have operated without polluting before they are permitted to extract metals here.
“People want to make things in America again,” said Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. “Our neighbors, Minnesota and Michigan, have placed their shovels in the dirt of America’s future. It is Wisconsin’s turn to do the same.”
Tiffany, who was instrumental in a 2013 law relaxing state iron mining regulations, has been talking for months about lifting the so-called “moratorium” on mining for sulfide metals such as copper and gold.
In April, the Sierra Club and Wisconsin Resources Protection Council urged the Legislature to reject Tiffany’s plan. They said 50 other state, regional and national groups also opposed repeal of the 1998 mining law, which was signed by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, after receiving bipartisan legislative support.
The law is designed to protect Wisconsin waters from the sulfide material that typically is unearthed by metallic mining. Sulfide reacts with air and water by creating acid that can destroy lake and stream life and pollute the aquifer.
The existing law requires companies to demonstrate 10 years of sulfide mine operation without acid drainage pollution and another pollution-free decade after the mine closed.
Tiffany has said Flambeau copper mine near Ladysmith proved a sulfide mine can operate safely, rendering the state restrictions unnecessary.
The state Department of Natural Resources and environmentalists disagree about how clean the Flambeau mine was.
It operated for just four years before shutting down in 1997. In 2012, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb found the mine had discharged a minimal amount of copper into state waters, but an appellate court reversed the judgment in 2013.
Tiffany and co-sponsor Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, issued a statement saying that consumers who buy products made of metal from countries with scant environmental protections should “step up to the plate and mine in a state that chooses to rigorously protect its environment.”
Tiffany was credited as the author of a controversial bill in 2013 that relaxed iron mining regulations for Gogebic Taconite’s planned $1.5 billion mine in northern Wisconsin. The company abandoned the project in 2015 when iron prices dropped. Company officials had expressed surprise at the number of protected wetlands on the mining site.