When the idea for a moratorium on mining projects in Wisconsin was floated in the early 1990s, few people gave it much chance of succeeding.
The speaker of the state Assembly, Scott Jensen, vowed the bill would never pass. Gov. Tommy Thompson pledged to veto it.
But what happened next is something that Spencer Black, who was then a Democratic assemblyman, lectures about in his natural resources class at the UW-Madison. Environmentalists, Native Americans, sports enthusiasts, college students and others all came together to support the bill, pressuring legislators in every district.
"It was the strongest grassroots effort I'd seen in Wisconsin," Black remembers. "Exxon spent more money lobbying against the moratorium than had ever been spent lobbying against a bill. Exxon spent millions of millions to lobby against it. But there was this tremendous support for it."
In the end, the bill - which put a halt to any mining project until a company proves mining can be done without environmental damage - passed with overwhelming support. Just six legislators in the Assembly and five in the Senate voted against it. And Gov. Thompson, instead of vetoing the bill, signed it into law on the banks of the Wolf River on Earth Day 1998.
The law was one of Black's proudest moments in the Legislature, which he retired from in 2010.
That achievement is also on the verge of unraveling.
Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have vowed to bring mining back to Wisconsin. They came close to passing a bill last session but were stymied by Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, who defected on the issue, breaking the Republicans' slim majority.
This time around, with an 18-15 majority in the Senate, they don't need Schultz's vote. Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar), a critic of last session's proposal, expects the Republicans to coddle the mining industry.
"It looks like the Legislature is being told what to do by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, who proudly tell people that they spent $2 million [in campaign contributions] on the Legislature," he says. "Now that they've bought it, they want their way."
The Senate Select Committee on Mining (a committee that will dissolve in January) is pushing its own, more moderate recommendations for mining reform. (See related story.)
But either way, mining opponents won't go down without a fight. Laura Gauger, an activist who helped pass the moratorium law, says, "If this law is repealed, it's a slap in the face to citizens, to environmental organizations, to the tribes and to the sporting groups that came together to support it."
'Prove it first'
Laura Gauger doesn't like the word "moratorium" to describe the landmark law. Gauger prefers the term "prove it first."
"That gets the point across better," says Gauger, who wrote The Buzzards Have Landed with Roscoe Churchill, about the now-closed Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith. "Before a company can set up shop to do a metallic-sulfide mine, they have to show a mine operated for at least 10 years in the United States or Canada without violating any laws."
The company also has to prove that a reclaimed mine did not cause any pollution for 10 years after the mine closed.
Thomas Evans, a geology professor at UW-Madison and assistant director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, states the obvious: "Boy, do the companies hate that."
Evans is no fan of the moratorium either. "It's really a silly bill. This is just my opinion," he says. "It doesn't help us regulate a particular operation. The mining moratorium bill is not structured around Wisconsin, it's structured around other places. What constitutes a violation in Colorado? What authority did they have?"
More importantly, if a company proves mining can be safe, how does that help the state regulate a mine?
Evans says a better approach would be to require companies to use the current best practices and then "monitor and enforce the bejesus out of it."
George Meyer, the former secretary of the Department of Natural Resources who now heads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, says mining companies have already proven, to the DNR's satisfaction, that mining can be done safely.
Meyer says that Nicolet Minerals, which had been trying to develop the Crandon Mine in northeastern Wisconsin in the late '90s and early '00s, pointed to three mines as proof: the Sacaton Mine in Arizona, the McLaughlin Mine in California and the Cullaton Lake Mine in the Nunavut Territory, Canada.
Meyer says the DNR was set to agree with the company that those mines qualified (though not yet prepared to give the project a permit) when Nicolet gave up on the project in 2003. Meyer, who was against the moratorium, nevertheless says the company "did not provide any information that would be useful to a mine in northern Wisconsin. One [mine] was in the frozen tundra of the Northwest Territories of Canada. A second one was in the desert of Arizona, half a mile below the ground, with no surface water."
Al Gedicks, a UW-La Crosse sociology professor who has been an environmental watchdog of mining companies since the mid-1970s, argues that the moratorium doesn't ban mining, "it simply takes the industry at its word that it is safe. All the mining moratorium said was, 'Fine, we accept your rhetoric, now show us where you've actually done that.'"
Getting around the moratorium
Republican efforts to break the moratorium on mining emerged in the last session in Assembly Bill 426, which most people call simply AB 426. It was introduced last December by the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business.
Says Evans: "Where 426 came out of, a lot of people still don't know the answer to that question."
Although the law was being considered to help Gogebic Taconite develop a 21,000-acre, 22-mile-long iron mine in the Penokee Mountains in Ashland and Iron counties, the new rules would apply anywhere in Wisconsin.
The bill attempted to get around the moratorium by separating iron mines from sulfide mines. Sulfide mines are more volatile than iron mines, because the precious metals have to be separated out from their sulfide compounds. This produces large amounts of toxic waste, known as acid mine drainage, which can poison surface water and groundwater.
But iron mines can also produce this waste, since the soil around the iron ore often contains sulfide compounds. Simply digging into the ground can unleash these toxic chemicals.
AB 426 disregards this problem and creates a separate set of rules for iron mines, exempting them from the state's standard environmental rules.
It also creates a different review process, with less public scrutiny. Evans finds that particularly troubling.
"They eliminated the master hearing, when all testimony comes in. They just took that out. That's a hell of a thing to do, because how do you make decisions about whether this application is appropriate?" Evans says. "What they were basically arguing is that the value of getting the iron out of the ground exceeds the value of a particular process and getting public input."
Even many mining advocates say AB 426 is problematic. Meyer says the bill would allow, in direct contrast to the state's environmental laws, the filling in of lakes. "If AB 426 comes out, our organization is in full opposition," Meyer told the special Senate mining committee last month.
Gedicks is harsher, saying: "This bill essentially subordinates every other piece of legislation to the wishes of a single mining company. Even staunch conservatives might have some objections to having a single mining company dictate policy."
But even it the law does pass, Meyer says it won't pave the way for a mine in the Penokee Mountains because the rules would be unacceptable to the nearby Bad River Band of the Lake SuperiorTribe ofChippewa Indians (which has the power to set water-quality standards in the reservation) and the federal government (which has the ultimate authority to regulate mining). "It will lead to the federalization of mining in Wisconsin," Meyer predicts.
Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) is unfazed by this argument. "If the federal government does not want that mine, there's not going to be a mine," he says. "All honest people are going to have to recognize that."
Nevertheless, that won't deter Grothman from voting for a bill similar to AB 426, which he predicts will pass without much trouble. "It's always nice to get things done in a bipartisan fashion. But if it can't be done that way, we may have the votes to pass the same bill as last year."
"I voted for it once," he adds, "I'll vote for it again."
That kind of talk frustrates Sen. Jauch. He says Republicans, especially in the Assembly, are not being sensible.
"There's no doubt in my mind the Assembly would change the name of Wisconsin to whatever the special interests tell them," Jauch says. "But hopefully there are enough members of the Senate who are going to want changes to AB 426."
A massive hole in the ground
Spencer Black says if you want to see what a potential mining operation could do to Penokee Mountains, there's a nearby example. Take a drive to Hibbing, Minn.
There you will find, Black says, "about as far as you can see in any direction, this massive hole in the ground. That used to be a mountain range."
The Hull-Rust-Mahoning Open Pit Iron Mine that Black refers to is so massive, it's become a tourist attraction and was designated a National Landmark in 1966.
Black is especially bothered by rhetoric from the governor that passing a mining bill would create jobs. A mining project would create jobs, but not that many, he says. And few, if any, would be filled by Wisconsinites.
"You tend to have a very boom-bust cycle in mining. Most of the employment will be people who don't live there now," Black says. "The jobs pay very well. But they're skilled jobs, so people are used to moving."
The machinery and equipment needed to mine are very specific to the industry. "Just the tires for one of the trucks is three or four times your height. They're immense machines. It's skilled labor. It's not just driving a pickup truck."
He adds that the Penokee mine would be "the largest change in any landscape ever in Wisconsin."
Residents in Ashland County, where part of the mine would be located, are split, says Jeff Beirl, Ashland County administrator. For those concerned about unemployment, which is higher in Ashland than in the rest of the state, the attitude, he says, is "Just dig."
"Then there's another group that says, we rely on agriculture and tourism, and for that we need good water," Beirl says. "The majority of the people are saying, why can't we have both?"
Locals are also worried about what tax benefits they'd get from a mining operation. AB 426 dissolved the community's ability to require agreements with mining companies. Beirl favors a tonnage tax - not a tax on profits - on any resources removed from the county. That's what the county gets for wood logged on its land.
"If you're going to harvest so many tons, you're going to pay us so much a ton," Beirl says. "It's so simple."
It isn't just the Penokee range that has the potential to be mined. Evans says there are a few other mineral deposits in the state that companies are interested in.
The Crandon deposit in Forest County - which prompted the moratorium law - is enormous. According to the DNR it contains 55 million tons of zinc, copper, lead, gold and silver. The land has since been purchased by the Chippewa and Potawatomi tribes, and any mining there is highly unlikely.
In Oneida County, there's a 5.8-million-ton deposit of zinc, lead and silver, along with small amounts of copper and gold. It's owned by the county, which recently voted to deny exploration.
But other sites are much more likely to be mined, if the state changes its laws. The Bend deposit in Taylor County, in the Chequamegon National Forest, contains 3.7 million tons of copper and gold. In Marathon County, the Reef deposit contains substantial gold.
The pressure to mine in Wisconsin is likely to wax and wane, depending on what the minerals fetch on the world market, Evans says. A few years ago, the Penokee deposit wasn't feasible to mine, Evans says. But growth in China and India created a higher demand for iron. That demand is now waning again, as the economy struggles.
Evans agrees that mining is an "invasive active" that alters the landscape and has the potential to create catastrophic damage.
"Mining disrupts things, but there's a value to it," he says. "Every one of us uses 37,000 pounds of mineral product every year. Our lifestyle creates this demand.
"When you say you can't do mining here, but you're okay with doing mining in Brazil, you export the damage. People can say we don't want sulfide mining, but we still use zinc, copper, lead. We're the ones creating demand for it."
But Black says that's no excuse for destroying the environment and polluting water.
"By having standards that we're not going to allow our state to be polluted, what we're saying to the companies is, 'You have to do this right.' If these minerals are valuable, develop the technology and spend the money to do it right."
Gedicks says mining companies have never been forced to do mining safely. "The industry has a terrible track record. They have no incentive to invest in technology to reduce environmental impacts because they don't have to."
For a while, at least, Wisconsin tried to.