MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Assembly has approved a polarizing mining bill backed by Republicans, completing a two-year push to help a company dig a giant iron mine near Lake Superior.
The Assembly passed the measure on a 58-39 vote Thursday. Republican Gov. Scott Walker has promised to sign it into law.
Gogebic Taconite has refused to move forward with its plans for an open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills until legislators ease the regulatory path.
The bill dramatically reworks Wisconsin's mining rules. It puts a deadline on a final permit decision and declares any wetland damage is presumed necessary.
The GOP said the measure will help create hundreds of jobs.
"We do everything we possibly can to make the bill constitutional, to make sure it protects the environment and that it will actually create jobs. I think it accomplishes all three goals," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
Opponents said the bill loosens environmental standards too much. They already are talking about challenging it in court.
Assembly Democrats tried unsuccessfully to make 19 changes to the bill.
"You are gumming up our environmental laws. You are creating uncertainty, and you are creating a gold mine for attorneys," said Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca. "People ran on the notion, whether it was Democrat or Republican bills, let's take the best ideas and lets work together, and that clearly didn't happen in this bill."
Democrats pointed to news reports that a company associated with the one that wants to build a northern Wisconsin mine has environmental problems at a mine in Illinois.
One Republican leader said that wouldn't happen in Wisconsin.
"We're confident that the standards that are in place will protect not only the air and water quality, but this is obviously a new venture, so this is different from that other case," said Republican Majority Leader Scott Suder.
Suder said the bill doesn't guarantee a mine. The company still needs to apply for a permit, but Suder said a mine could be operational within three to four years.
Members of both parties said on the Assembly floor that the legislation is headed for a lawsuit.
The chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa promises an "all-out effort" to fight a planned iron ore mine just north of its reservation.
Bad River chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. joined with leaders from other tribes at a Thursday news conference to once again speak out against the mine as the state Assembly debated it one floor down in the Capitol.
Wiggins said tribal members "stand ready to fight and resist this effort to the bitter end until the mining company goes away."
Wiggins promises "active resistance" that includes filing lawsuits.
"We have nowhere to run, nowhere to relocate to if groundwater contamination occurs or heavy metals and other toxicity come down our waterways," Wiggins said. "It's about a way of life, but it's more than that -- it's about life."
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