MADISON, Wis. - Republican legislators have unveiled another bill to rewrite Wisconsin's iron mining laws.
Assembly Republicans introduced the sweeping, 206-page bill at a news conference Wednesday. They promised the legislation would create thousands of jobs without lowering environmental standards.
"This is the beginning stage of the process and our doors are open," said Republican Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford.
The legislation closely mirrors a GOP bill that died in the state Senate last March. Under its provisions, the state Department of Natural Resources would have up to 480 days to issue a mining permit, people could challenge the permit decision but not before its made, mining companies could offset damage to wetlands by restoring wetlands elsewhere
Republicans hope the bill will convince a company called Gogebic Taconite to open an iron mine near Lake Superior. Opponents insist the project will pollute one of the state's last pristine areas.
"What it will do in its basics is certainty for an applicant that they're going to be able to get an answer and we will uphold Wisconsin's high environmental standards," said Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst.
Lawmakers cautioned that the bill itself won't authorize a mine.
"I have said this over and over again: stay calm folks," said Rep Mary Williams, R-Medford. "If the DNR or Army Corps of Engineers or EPA find something they think is going to be detrimental to the environment, there isn't going to be a permit. That's the way it is."
But the head of a committee that held hearings on mining over the fall and winter said this latest bill won't get the state one day closer to a mine.
"They talk about jobs, but the likely jobs that will be created in the next few years will be for lawyers," said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville.18160330
Cullen said the Army Corps of Engineers, which usually does an environmental study along with the state, told his committee the timeline included in this bill is not long enough.
"The Corps was very clear that if Wisconsin has an unreasonably short timeline, and this is a short timeline of 420 days with another 60 as I understand it, so 480 days, that's completely unreasonable from the Corps standpoint," said Cullen. "It's unreasonable for anyone familiar with mining."
Cullen said he'll introduce his own bill this week. Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who was the lone Republican vote against the bill last session said he's signed on to Cullen's bill but is keeping an open mind.
"I think we have to see what's in the bill that came today and how it measures up to what Sen. Cullen produced before we begin to negotiate or make comments or debate the issue," Schultz said.
The Army Corps of Engineers this week sent a letter to lawmakers outlining concerns with the Republican bill, including the timeline. The Corps confirmed in the letter that it usually takes two to four years or longer to evaluate mining permits, and it would have to work separately from the state if a shorter timeline is passed.
Republican lawmakers said they'll hold hearings on the bill in the coming weeks.
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