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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Fair
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Heated testimony heard from both sides at public hearing on Wisconsin mining bill
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LaBarre (left): 'I believe that this can be something that can change the northland.'
Credit:Nora G. Hertel

Shirl LaBarre looked exasperated and upset on Wednesday when she sat down to testify at the joint public hearing on the mining bill backed by Republicans that was reintroduced January 18. LaBarre and her friend, Jim Miller, drove from Sawyer County on Tuesday night to testify in favor of the bill, which is not to be confused with an alternative version offered by Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville). LaBarre and Miller didn't get to speak until 3:30 in the afternoon; the hearing before the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Mining and the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining, and Revenue began at 9 a.m.

"It's very frustrating for us," said LaBarre, an activist who testified in 2011 in favor of the mining bill and who led the unsuccessful attempt to recall Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar). LaBarre also ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly, receiving donations from employees of Gogebic Taconite, the company that is proposing to develop an iron ore mine in Wisconsin.

"The voices from down here [in Madison and Milwaukee] are heard more than ours."

She finds it hard to listen to criticism from people who don't live in the area near the mine and may rarely visit it. In her testimony, LaBarre spoke of the businesses that are closing in her county, the houses that are up for sale, and the rise in the cost of her groceries, water and taxes. For LaBarre, an iron ore mine in the area could revitalize local businesses and keep workers in town.

"I believe that this can be something that can change the northland," said LaBarre, who works in her family's plumbing business.

Senate Bill 1 and Assembly Bill 1 would ease restrictions on mining in Wisconsin and change the permitting process used by the Department of Natural Resources. The legislation includes regulations to protect surface and ground water and to facilitate the reclaiming of sites after mining.

Last session a similar version of the Republican bill was the subject of multiple, controversial public hearings and was voted down by a narrow margin in March 2012. Gogebic Taconite withdrew its proposal to mine in Iron and Ashland Counties after the contentious public response and the failure of the bill to pass the Senate.

Cullen's new mining bill, announced earlier this week, allows more time for the permitting process and includes more extensive environmental protections.

Committee staffers estimated around 500 people submitted statements on the bill and about 250 to 300 people registered to speak. By 4 p.m., 150 people remained in the queue to address the joint committee.

The public hearing was noticed last Friday afternoon. Rep. Mary Williams (R-Medford), chair of the Assembly committee, confirmed on Wednesday that this would be the only public hearing held on the bill. Democratic committee members insisted that they did not have enough time to thoroughly review the 200-plus page document before the hearing and that a single hearing would not be enough to vet the issue.

When Williams maintained strict time limits and cut off questions to the bill's authors to move on to representatives of the Department of Natural Resources, Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine), a member of the committee, declared, "This is unheard of that you do not allow members of the Legislature to ask public questions of the authors."

Other Democrats made similar statements.

In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Scott Walker called on the state Legislature to bring him job legislation and a mining bill that considers environmental impacts. "It is a true jobs bill," said Rep. Mark Honadel, (R-South Milwaukee), a co-author.

But Marcia Bjørnerud, professor of geology at Lawrence University in Appleton, sees a problem with designing mining legislation for a single, specific mining project and company, Gogebic Taconite.

"Is that the way we should make legislation?" she asks. "Especially for a company that's not giving us any information?"

Bjørnerud has studied the rocks in the Gogebic Range for 10 years and explored the feasibility of mining there. She said Gogebic Taconite has not been publicly forthcoming with its specific plan for the mine and how it expects it to be profitable.

Bjørnerud testified that there are sulfides in the rock formations that could create acidic runoff. She also said the angle of iron formation would make it difficult to mine without pulling up huge volumes of adjacent rock. The volume of this so-called "over-burden" rock, would equal or exceed the volume of three Lake Mononas (330 million cubic meters). That estimate, said Bjørnerud, is conservative.

Bjørnerud said mining companies in Minnesota and Michigan have known of this mine for 100 years and not acted on it. The effort it would take to access the iron, the lower quality of the ore that isn't true "iron ore," and the costs to address the environmental impact have kept more local mining companies away, she said.

"GTac [Gogebic Taconite] is coming from outside [the region] and saying, 'We can do this profitably,'" said Bjørnerud. "It doesn't make economic sense."

In their testimony, representatives from Gogebic Taconite, including the president of the company, Bill Williams, referenced the research conducted by Bjørnerud and her colleagues but disagreed with their estimates of the rock quantities.

Timothy Meyers, Gogebic's chief engineer, estimates the available ore is twice the quantity described by Bjørnerud and her colleagues. Meyers also said the estimated volumes of overburden rock are highly exaggerated.

Gogebic Taconite lobbyist Bob Seitz confirmed the company's long-term interest in the site.

"If this bill or something substantially similar were passed," said Seitz, "we would intend to be here and would move forward as quickly as the law allowed."

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