Wisconsin mining law reforms benefit polluters 05.14.13

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By Dave Blouin and Al Gedicks May 14, 2013

In their May 7 opinion piece "Unlock minerals in Wisconsin," representatives of the Wisconsin and National Mining Associations grossly misrepresent the facts to sway the public in favor of mining law reforms for gold and base metals. Their rhetoric is designed to hide the fact that their No. 1 goal is to repeal Wisconsin's landmark "prove it first" Mining Moratorium Law.

The Moratorium Law was passed in response to the mining industry's extremely poor environmental track record and the fact that it could not demonstrate a single example of a mine that had safely operated in metallic sulfide ores. When exposed to air and water, the sulfides produce sulfuric acid, which then leaches toxic heavy metals into water resources. Wisconsin's gold and base metal ores have significant amounts of sulfides, making them difficult, costly and risky to mine.

Gov. Tommy Thompson signed the Moratorium Law in 1998 after it was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities that included aye votes by many Republicans such as state Sens. Alberta Darling, Mike Ellis and Rob Cowles and then-state Rep. Scott Walker, now governor.

Wisconsin Mining Association President Tim Sullivan testified before the Senate Select Committee on Mining on Nov. 29 that repeal of the Moratorium Law is the foremost goal of the WMA because it "cannot be met" and is an "unnecessary roadblock" to the development of new mines.

That the mining industry still cannot meet the law 15 years after it was passed is an extraordinary indictment of the industry's failed environmental record. Sullivan's testimony proves that the law remains absolutely necessary here to protect Wisconsin's natural environmental resources from unsafe mining.

The mining associations' case for mining law reform rests on a false premise: that the current regulatory program is out of date and unpredictable. Their contention is proved wrong by the successful permitting of the Flambeau mine in Ladysmith in 1991. Wisconsin mining law for base and precious metals has changed little since then, so a company would simply need to meet the additional requirements of the moratorium to apply for permits here.

Moreover, another representative of the WMA, Steve Donahue, testified before the same Senate Select Committee on Mining on Sept. 25 that there is much to like about Wisconsin's mining rules and that "environmental standards do not need to be relaxed to attract mining investment in the state." An ally of the WMA, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, claimed in January that Wisconsin's mining laws make it among the worst in the world for mining investment. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's PolitiFact found this claim mostly false.

Notably, the proposed open pit iron ore mine in the Bad River Watershed does not have to meet the moratorium as it was exempted from it in the recently passed 2013 Act 1, the Bad River Watershed Destruction Act. This exemption was made despite strong scientific evidence that there are significant sulfides in the iron ore there.

After the passage of Act 1, one of the last protections for ecologically critical watersheds in gold and base metal exploration areas in Oneida, Taylor and Marathon counties is the Mining Moratorium Law. Wisconsin's mine permitting process is not "trapped in the past" but one that has long recognized that Wisconsin's sustainable jobs in agriculture, forestry, fishing and tourism depend upon clean water.

That the North American mining industry cannot meet the Moratorium Law is a problem of its own making and purely reflects the fact that mining metallic sulfide ores remains proven to be unsafe. Wisconsin residents should not be fooled into believing that repealing this law means that the industry has cleaned up its act — it hasn't. Our clean air and drinking water and the critical habitats and healthy environment we all depend on are threatened by the mining industry's so-called reforms.

Dave Blouin of Madison is the Mining Committee chair for the Sierra Club — John Muir Chapter. Al Gedicks of La Crosse is executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council.