01.09.14 Surprise: State's new mining law may require some tweaking

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The Penokee hills in northern Wisconsin, near where an iron mine has been proposed.

Jan. 9, 2014

One of the warnings sounded during last year's contentious debate over state mining legislation was that the proposed bill could make it more difficult for the state to coordinate its review of potential mine sites with federal authorities. What a surprise: Turns out those warnings were right on target.

Which means that one of the primary goals of that legislation — speeding up the permitting process — may go unmet. Maybe it would have been better to create timetables that the feds could live with. And maybe legislators should give some consideration to going back and tweaking the law so that mining companies won't have to go through what could become two separate processes.

The Journal Sentinel's Lee Bergquist reported Wednesday that a letter circulated this week showed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuffing an overture from the state Department of Natural Resources to collaborate on an environmental impact statement for a $1.5 billion open pit mine proposed in portions of Ashland and Iron counties.

The impact statement is an extensive environmental assessment for the massive project that will play a critical role in helping regulators decide whether to approve permits for the mine.

Tamara E. Cameron, chief of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps district office in St. Paul, Minn., told the DNR in a Dec. 23 letter that her agency couldn't work with the DNR — for now — because of key differences between state and federal review requirements.

She didn't entirely close the door to at least some coordination. Cameron said the Army Corps remains "committed to coordinating the federal and state review requirements associated with the impacts to waters of the U.S. whenever possible." She also said the federal agency would be "interested in considering means by which we could jointly undertake activities to determine the scope of the proposed project's environmental effects."

It's also true that the permitting process for the proposed mine has barely begun. As that process moves along, there may be points where federal and state regulators can coordinate some activities.

The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which circulated Cameron's letter, called for repeal of the mining law, which the group feels has weakened state environmental protections and has created an "unrealistically short permit processing deadline."

We're not convinced repeal is necessary; we did support aspects of the bill that was approved last year, although we also argued that the final product left many things to be desired. Among those things was a processing deadline that did not adequately take into account the federal process. What good does it do a mine developer to have a quicker state process if it's not coordinated with the federal process?

Legislators should give serious consideration in the current legislative session to improve the law they were so eager to pass last year as a jobs measure. If what they've created actually makes it tougher to develop a mine because of a prolonged and uncoordinated permitting process, the law could fall flat on creating any jobs at all.

What is your opinion of the state's mining law? To have your view considered for a letter to the editor, email jsedit@jrn.com. Please see letters guidelines.