Assembly Holds First Mining Bill Hearing

The Assembly Jobs, Economy and Small Business Committee met yesterday for the first hearing on the proposed mining bill, AB 426.

This bill is in response to Gogebic Taconite’s proposal to build Wisconsin’s largest ever iron mine. Earlier this year, the company said it needed more certainty in the state’s regulatory process before it proceeds with the $1.5 billion mine in portions of Iron and Ashland counties. Without the changes, testified Gogebic President Bill Williams, it is doubtful outside investors would lend money for the 1,000-foot-deep mine.

The hearing drew a large number of attendees. A number of people from the area near the proposed mine made the drive to Milwaukee to testify the hearing, both for and against. As part of their testimony in opposition to the bill, a member of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians performed an honor song. Also testifying were several business owners from the Milwaukee area, which is the home to many large equipment manufacturers that would benefit from more mining related business.

Proponents of the bill point to the job creation potential of the mine, while opponents worry environmental standards will be sacrificed to gain those jobs. Proponents counter that the text of the bill is the best indication so far that it is possible to retain Wisconsin’s strong environmental standards while still taking advantage of the state’s rich natural resources.

The mining hearing was covered by news outlets across the state, and nationally by the Wall Street Journal. The Journal characterized the proposed mine as “the latest flash point in a growing national debate that weighs the prospect of new jobs against concern about environmental damage,” and its coverage of the varied opinions expressed at the hearing supports that description.

“So many pieces of this legislation represent to me a give-away of the natural resources of the state,” said Mr. Wiggins, the [Bad River Tribe] leader.
Ray Frisleben, wearing a Green Bay Packers baseball cap and leaning on a cane, shook his head in disgust as Mr. Wiggins was speaking.

“Look at Minnesota and Michigan that have these mines,” said Mr. Freisleben, 48, a retired Air Force systems analyst who lives in Waukesha, in southeastern Wisconsin. “They seem not to be having any problems. People need jobs.”

Shirl LaBarre, of Hayward, Wis., near the proposed mine site, told lawmakers Wednesday that the region’s economy is sinking and young people are leaving for better job prospects. Her family plumbing business has shrunk from eight employees in recent years to employing just her and her husband.

“My son’s going to leave for college and if we don’t have jobs, he’s not coming back,” said Ms. LaBarre, who supports the mine.…

“This is being falsely case as another jobs-vs.-the-environment argument,” said Katie Nekola, general counsel of the environmental group Clean Wisconsin, in an interview. “Of course it’s possible to have economic development without destroying Wi8sconsin’s air and water. If this company thought that they could operate an iron mine in the North Woods without doing a lot of environmental damage, this bill wouldn’t exist.”

Hamilton Consulting’s previous analysis of the bill is available here. Track Hamilton Consulting’s analysis of the mining bill by subscribing to our free newsletter Political Tidbits, by following @HCG500 and the hashtag #WIMining on Twitter, or by contacting Hamilton Lobbyists Robert Fassbender, Andy Engel, or Amy Boyer.