Mining expert wants changes to Assembly bill By Lee Bergquist lbergquist@Journalsentinel.Com
Madison - A former industry executive who heads the Wisconsin Mining Association told a Senate panel Thursday that an Assembly mining bill that nearly passed this year needs changes.
Tim Sullivan declined to spell out many precise details, to the disappointment of Democrats.
But he raised questions about making any modifications in Wisconsin law that would put the state at odds with federal agencies, which play key roles in mining regulation.
He also said that under the best of circumstances, with faster timelines, it could take five years or more for a company to start extracting minerals from a site.
The Republican-backed Assembly bill would have made numerous changes to state law and was designed to help ease the way for Gogebic Taconite to construct a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties.
Sullivan appeared Thursday before the Senate Select Committee on Mining, which plans to offer an alternative to the mining bill that failed to clear the Senate by a single vote in March over worries that it rolled back environmental protections. Mining legislation was one of the top issues of the past session, with many lawmakers eager to advance a bill that would help create hundreds of jobs in an impoverished region of the north and thousands of jobs in indirect employment.
The Senate panel will provide an outline of an alternative to the rejected Assembly version on Dec. 6, and rush to advance a bill in the coming weeks before Republicans regain control of the Senate, said the committee chairman, Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville).
Cullen says he and many Democrats want legislation that is friendly to the mining industry but that protects the environment.
Republicans will have an 18-15 majority in January when a new legislative session begins.
Sullivan is the former chief executive of Bucyrus International, the South Milwaukee-based mining equipment company that is now a unit of Caterpillar Inc.
In his presentation, he provided details of a consultant's report that said Wisconsin's current mining laws need to be revamped to give companies more certainty about the regulatory process.
His testimony had been much anticipated because of his expertise and because Sullivan has been meeting with Democrats and an environmental leader in the hope of striking a compromise.
Sullivan emphasized that Wisconsin can't write mining regulations that would run contrary to federal authority.
The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, will perform an exhaustive environmental study, either on its own or in conjunction with the state Department of Natural Resources.
Also, the federal government has trust responsibilities with Indian tribes, and in the case of Gogebic, the mine's water quality would be affected by tough water regulations set by the Bad River band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation is downstream bordering Lake Superior.
If the state tries to move faster than the federal government or pushes looser oversight, federal authorities "will take over the process" and potentially delay a project, Sullivan told the committee.
Sullivan said that the state needs to change the current laws on sulfide regulation involving mines. Even if the changes don't apply to the geology at Gogebic, they should affect gold, silver and copper sites under review by prospective mining companies.
Sulfides in rock can cause acid mine drainage and harm water quality in local watersheds, but Sullivan said the state's laws are too restrictive.
Sullivan said the Assembly version is a good starting place to change the state's mining law, but he declined to give it his endorsement.
"That bill, in its current form, needs improving," he told the panel.
Sullivan said his association wants to help advise lawmakers, but on specifics, Sullivan was vague.
"We need to review the entire bill and match that up with the findings of this report," he told reporters afterward.
Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) interpreted Sullivan's testimony as a way to delay the process, but Sullivan said that his association will be "at your fingertips."
"I think that there is a strong desire by many people in the industry to get this right," Sullivan said.
Sen. Robert Jauch (D-Poplar), whose district includes the proposed Gogebic mine, expressed disappointment that Sullivan didn't highlight the shortcomings of the failed legislation.
"I am extremely disappointed with the vagueness of your presentation," Jauch said.
Former DNR Secretary George Meyer is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
He has had several discussions with Sullivan on mining regulation and said the two agreed on a lot. Meyer said Sullivan worried the bill advanced by Republicans created so much animosity that it would spur endless litigation, if passed.
Sullivan and the mining association came under fire earlier this year from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce for discussing mining with Democrats and environmentalists when presumably Republicans would have the upper hand come January.
Scott Manley, the environmental lobbyist for the business group, agreed with Sullivan that the Assembly version is a good starting point.
"It's not clear to me the changes the mining associations believes need to be made right now," Manley said.
"It's certainly possible to make a number of minor changes or tweaks to that bill to make it better," but they must be acceptable to Gogebic, he said.
The company says it favors changes that would provide more clarity on timelines for environmental reviews, but would oppose anything to slow the process down.
An iron ore mine will take years to construct, Sullivan said.
"It's a longer process that people really think," he said. "We're not talking a year or two years. You're talking five, six years out, potentially even further, depending on how the permit process goes. This is not short term."