By Kevin Murphy/Special to the Telegram, Superior Telegram 09.29.2012
Mining Rep: Clear Regs Needed
MADISON – Wisconsin must eliminate regulatory uncertainty and ambiguous rules in order to attract mining investment similar to what Minnesota and Michigan currently enjoy, a mining association official told a state senate committee Tuesday.
In the third of three scheduled informational hearings the Senate Select Committee heard from representatives of the mining industry and environmental organizations testify how to make mining approval process more efficient while protecting the state’s resources.
Stephen Donohue, of the Wisconsin Mining Association, said the state doesn’t need to relax environmental standards to draw in mining investment However, vague and difficult to interpret regulations need to go including the so-called “moratorium” on issuing permits for mining sulfide ore bodies and rules on storing waste rock tailings.
The moratorium was imposed in 1997 to prevent acid from leaching out of waste rock piles and entering ground and surface water. Like other industries that generate waste, this problem can best be addressed as a waste management issue through engineering and not by an industry-wide prohibition, Donohue said.
The mining industry views the moratorium as a sign on the border proclaiming, “Not open for your business,” he said. Instead, the Legislature should repeal the moratorium based on the success of the Flambeau copper and gold mine near Ladysmith.
The Ladysmith deposit was mined from 1993-97 after two years of construction and four years to back fill the 35-acre open pit site.
The mine also paid $27.7 million in taxes and fees to local and state governments in addition to the salaries paid to a workforce comprised of 85 percent of area residents, he said.
Reclamation began in 1998 and continues to present.
This summer the mining company largely prevailed in a Clean Water Act lawsuit brought in federal court by the Sierra Club over how a storm water retention facility functions at the site.
Current state law contains no timelines for the Department of Natural Resources to decide whether or not to approve a permit for a new mining project, said Donohue. Wisconsin’s approval process should have timelines sufficient to design in environmental protections but be efficient enough to reach a decision point, he said.
When asked Donohue said four years could be a benchmark for the permit approval process but instead advocated timelines established for different phases of the project.
The permit applicant would be in control of the time it takes to develop preliminary information submitted in the Notice of Intent and Scope of (environmental) Study that starts the approval process. Public hearings and state input follows which could be put into a timeline, he said.
Establishing a timeline for the environmental study stage is complicated by the role the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and possibly the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management would play in the process, Donohue said.
Since the state can’t dictate the pace of the Corps work, Donohue suggested the state and federal agencies enter into a memorandum of understanding on how they will move the process forward.
Coordinating environmental review of the project between state and federal agencies should avoid needless delays and give the applicant a better understanding of what problems are being encountered, he said.
Under Wisconsin law, the applicant prepares the Environmental Impact Statement which the DNR decides when it is complete. Completeness becomes a disputed issue between applicants and the DNR, said Donohue, He suggested pausing or adding “off ramps” to a timeline to resolve “completeness” issues.
Donohue differed from State Sen. Robert Jauch-D, Poplar on when to hold a contested case hearing on the mining permit. Donohue said Wisconsin can adopt Michigan’s procedure of having the final Environmental Impact Statement and mine permit adopted and then subjected to a contested case hearing.
Jauch favored the present system of holding a contested case hearing before the EIS is made final as it provides an opportunity for the public to hold the DNR accountable and the DNR to improve the document by including additional submitted comments.
Asked to compare Wisconsin mining law with Minnesota’s and Michigan’s, Donohue said, Michigan’s is the most efficient due largely to the federal government delegating Michigan it’s authority over wetland issues. Few states have been authorized to act on the U.S. government’s behalf, Donohue said.
Wisconsin should adopt Minnesota DNR’s approach to promoting and educating local governments on mining regulations. Too many local governments in Wisconsin don’t understand their limited role in the mining approval process and the Wisconsin DNR could be of service there, he said.
Jauch called Donohue’s 2 ½ hour presentation “one of the most honest and complete” that he has heard in a few years.
“It’s important to improve the process and establish timelines that reflect what the state can’t control and built in what time the federal agencies will take,” Jauch said.
State Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin asked Donohue to detail out his proposal differs from the mining bill the Assembly passed last year but died in the Senate by one vote.
Representatives from the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and Clean Wisconsin, Inc. also testified before committee Tuesday.