Mine Drama Continues

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

While the mining bill is stalled in the state legislature, Gogebic Taconite has reached an agreement with Ironwood, Michigan, to supply water for a planned $1.5 billion iron mine near Hurley, WI, one of the more economically depressed areas of the state. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Gogebic Taconite has also reached an agreement with labor unions that most of the estimated 700 jobs at the mine would be union jobs.

All of that preparation could come to naught if the state legislature cannot pass a mining bill to reform the state’s mining laws. Plans for the proposed mine are on hold unless the legislature can set a definite timeline for mine approval, allowing the potential mine operators to line up the necessary investment.

Courtesy of Gogebic Taconite

At stake are more than the 700 jobs at the mine itself. The proposed mine could lead to thousands of jobs statewide, many involved in the manufacture of equipment for the proposed mine.

Currently, there is no limit in Wisconsin how long approval of a mine could take. It’s this potentially endless process that has mine developers reluctant to develop more mines here in Wisconsin. The state assembly passed a version of the bill that would limit the approval process to 360 days.

The bill is hung up in the state senate where no Democrats are willing to cross party lines to support the mining regulation reform bill. The Republicans have a narrow 17-16 majority, and that means Republican Senator Dale Schultz currently holds the key to the bill’s passage. The former Republican Senate Majority Leader is making the most of his return to the spotlight.

Schultz reached out to Democratic Senator Bob Jauch and they proposed their own version of the mining bill. However, the bill was more of a poison pill rather than an attempt to resolve the mining issue. The bill would have imposed a new tax on mining operations, $5 million per year for the first five years, with some of the money set aside for a potential disaster. The $5 million per year would be in addition to the bonding already required for such contingencies.

Lacking any sense of proportion, Schultz actually compared a potential mining disaster to the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident following a tsunami. The tsunami, the result of a 9.0 earthquake, killed over 15,000 people last year, although nobody died from exposure to radiation from the nuclear power plant accident. More than 160,000 people remain displaced by the accident. The accident occurred when the tsunami wiped out the power supply to the plant’s safety measures.

It would be impossible to imagine a scenario where a mining accident could cause a tsunami on Lake Superior complete with a wall of water smashing into northern Wisconsin. But should it happen, Schultz could sleep soundly knowing there are no nuclear power plants nearby.

In rejecting a compromise proposed by State Representative Robin Vos and State Senator Alberta Darling, Schultz issued a statement saying that he had to, “look at himself in the mirror” when making the decision. It’s probably an exercise that Schultz indulges in frequently.

Schultz expressed concern about legislation being written out of the public view without any experts on hand. It would be interesting to see the camera footage from the bill writing session he and Jauch had. “…I kept thinking issues remain that should have been discussed months ago, and in a more public format.

“For every question answered, new uncertainties arose, and there was a decided lack of expertise in the room to answer them.”

However, when Schultz complains, “about a room full of legislators, staff and a handful of DNR folks behind closed doors” he could at least acknowledge the highly public debate since then rather than pretend that the process is being done in secret, or that the DNR might have a few experts.

Schultz adds, “My conscience simply won’t allow me to surrender the existing environmental protections without a full and open public debate.”

The good news for Schultz, then, is that we’ve had a full and open public debate, and the environment remains protected by the proposed ¬†Assembly bill and the Vos/Darling proposed modificaions.

If Schultz is really concerned about a tsunami-sized disaster, then perhaps he could tear himself away from the mirror long enough to look at the tsunami-sized unemployment in Wisconsin. Perhaps he even could look past the cameras focused on him now to see the state flag with a picture of a miner on it and remember how the state adopted the badger as it’s symbol.

Then maybe he could do a little less grandstanding, and a little more public service.