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Reality Check on mining bills

MADISON, Wis. - Reality Check on mining bills

There are now two competing mining bills in the legislature and one will get a committee hearing Wednesday.  What's the difference between the two?

The goal of the bills, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said, is to reform mining laws to bring back the industry in the state while preserving environmental protections.  A bill introduced last week by Senate and Assembly Republicans starts with a version of a bill that passed the joint finance committee last year.  It's competition is a bill introduced by Democratic Senator Tim Cullen, who chaired a special committee on mining last fall.

The first difference to point to: the timeline.  The GOP bill would require a decision on an iron mining permit in 480 days.  Cullen's bill states that would come in 730 days, or two years, with a possible extension of six months.  Why does this matter?   Current state law requires no timeline and companies don't know when to expect a decision.  But shorter may not be better according to the Army Corps of Enginers.  The Corps sent a letter to lawmakers last week saying it may cause them to do environmental studies separate from the state rather than together,  holding up the process.

The second difference:  public hearings.  Right now, the state holds at least three hearings before a permit is approved,  including a "contested-case" or court-style hearing in front of a judge, with no timeline.  Cullen's bill would still have three hearings, but puts a timeline on a contested-case hearing, requiring it is concluded within 680 days of the permit application.  The GOP bill provides for just one informational hearing and a contested-case hearing only after a mining permit is approved.

Then we get to a sticky point: environmental changes.  Republicans are adamant their bill changes no environmental standards.  That's true, but the bill does change how some of those standards are applied.  For example, it changes restrictions on the location of a mining waste site so that it can be closer to a river or stream, and doesn't take into account endangered species or whether the waste could harm groundwater.  The bill also states the DNR must presume that adverse impacts to wetlands is a necessary casualty of mining activities, and allows negative impacts on those wetlands to be mitigated anywhere in the state.

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Cullen's bill keeps primarily current environmental laws on the books, as he said that changes are not needed to bring mining back to the state.

Also in dispute is where tax money from the mine would go.  Cullen's bill creates a tax per ton of mined minerals, with 70 percent going to a local fund and 30 percent to the state economic development agency.  The GOP bill taxes how much the mining companies make on the metal, with 60 percent going to the locals and 40 percent to WEDC.

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