Report on the Milwaukee (West Allis) Assembly Hearing by Carl Sack

Here's my report on the hearing in Milwaukee. 

It was very long - 10 AM until 9 PM - but at times exciting. As I’m sure many have heard, the opposition outnumbered the pro-mine voices 2-1 despite it being held in Caterpillar and Joy Global territory, although it seemed that many of the anti-mine voices were pushed to the end of the hearing. The chair, Mary Williams, was heavy handed and attempted (unsuccessfully) silence any crowd support for anti-mine speakers, at one point having a woman removed for continuing to clap in defiance of her order not to. 

20 folks came down on a bus from up north, including an amazingly well-behaved six-year-old; they left at 5 in the morning and traveled 7 hours each way through winter conditions to get there. The committee was roundly denounced by many speakers for refusing to hold a hearing up north, their two responses to which were, “we already had one in October” and “the Senate is going to have a hearing, tell them to go up there.” Mellen resident Pete Rasmussen pointed out that while half of the mine site is in Iron County and Hurley businesses are pushing for the mine, all of the mine waste will drain into Ashland County and the Bad River Reservation, yet not one official hearing on new legislation has been scheduled there. Williams did agree to “consider” having a second hearing; Red Cliff Ojibwe vice-chair Marvin Defoe was asked by a committee member if Red Cliff could host such a hearing, and he readily agreed. Though they were not allowed to speak until very late, those who came down gave the most impassioned and powerful testimony about the area and why not just the bill, but the whole Penokee Mine plan is unacceptable.

Throughout the proceedings, pretty much everything wrong with the bill was brought to light: eliminating contested case hearings, allowing wetlands to be mitigated anywhere in the state, cutting by half revenue from mines to local communities, greatly expanded groundwater contamination zones, the false defintion of a sulfide-producing mine as only a non-ferrous mine, the automatic approvals, insane timelines, the ridiculously low cap on fees paid by the permit applicant ($1.1 million), the DNR’s lack of staff, and lots of other evil stuff. But there were surprises too. Early on, Bad River’s attorney Glen Stoddard (who has many years of experience litigating environmental fights like this in Wisconsin) said that lawyers for G-Tac told him that they drafted the bill:

“G-Tac, owned by the Cline Group, hired attorneys who told us at an attorney training seminar last summer that they drafted the first draft of this bill. That’s why you don’t see an author. It was drafted by attorneys for a specific company, G-Tac, and it’s written specifically to deal with their proposal to mine a huge open pit mine in the Penokee Hills. And yet, this would apply to the whole state of Wisconsin and for future generations.”

Subsequently, Rep. Nick Milroy (from Superior) asked repeatedly to know who the authors of the bill were. When he asked Mary Williams point-blank who wrote the bill, she didn’t answer. When G-Tac President Bill Williams testified, Milroy asked him twice if Gogebic Taconite had had a hand in writing the bill, to which Williams replied, “I did not write the bill.” That wasn’t the question, and everyone in the room knew it.

Milroy also asked a lot of questions pointing out damage the bill would do to the state’s environmental standards. He pointed out, and some others on the committee agreed, that while he is an aquatic biologist, most of the committee members were not qualified to take up this bill, and it should have been taken up by the Natural Resources Committee. 

There were other surprises as well. A woman from Bad River who works for the tribe’s Cultural Preservation Office said that the federal Historic Preservation Act would trump any timelines for permit approval in the bill, and that by removing consideration of archaeological sites from criteria for unsuitable sites, it would lengthen the permit process because the state wouldn’t be able to work with the Tribe to determine where sites were and could be sent back to the drawing board by the feds. Someone else testified about the possibility that provisions in the bill allowing fill in floodplains could make every home and business owner in the state no longer eligible for federal flood insurance. And today’s State Journal carried an article about the Army Corps warning that the bill could actually lengthen the permit process from their end as well, which is dealing with wetlands fill permits.

The one thing I found a bit disconcerting was how many anti-bill speakers qualified their remarks with, “I’m not against mining, but...” when the real problem with this bill is that it seeks to make possible a hugely destructive open pit mine. The implication from a lot of folks was still that they would be satisfied given adequate assurance that the DNR would find a way to somehow make the mine “environmentally responsible.” In contrast, when asked specifically if they could forsee any circumstance in which the Penokee Mine would be acceptable to them, four people from the Ashland area who came on the bus replied, absolutely not, and there are other solutions to build the economy--alternative energy projects and recycling, for example. There is no safe mine, certainly not a huge open pit mine at a headwaters and groundwater recharge zone. 

I was able to testify as well. My presentation dovetailed nicely with comments made by a woman from the River Alliance about the reduction in protections for wetlands. I presented the map I have been working on for class, which shows the wetlands on the mine site currently protected that would have their protections lifted under the bill. MJ and I were also able to hand out 100 anti-mine brochures at the beginning of the hearing, which was all I had brought with us. They were well received by many.

Thanks a ton to Rebecca Kimble, Barb With, and Mary Jo for the ride and good mutual moral support, and to the Stevens Point folks for coming down (there were about 8 or 10 of you?), and of course amazing respect to the folks who came down up north for their endurance and determination.