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Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011

Hauling Away Wisconsin

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In one of his signature songs, John Prine longs to return to the golden paradise of his childhood in Muhlenberg County, Ky. The sad refrain is: "I'm sorry, my son, you're too late in asking. Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away."

Gogebic Taconite, an iron ore strip-mining company, can hardly wait to haul away a couple of counties that are presently located in northern Wisconsin.

In fact, Gogebic is so eager to create the Grand Canyon of the Midwest, an open-pit iron mine 1,000 feet deep, that it's been meeting privately with legislative Republicans to write a brand-new law eliminating bothersome delays to consider environmental devastation and harm to the public.

The real reason for the urgency is that any company that makes big profits by destroying enormous swaths of the landscape and threatening air and water and the natural world wants to eliminate as many public protections as possible while Republicans still control Wisconsin's governor's office and Legislature.

Wisconsin is on the brink of a recall election that could remove Republican Gov. Scott Walker and possibly several more state senators, giving control of the Senate to Democrats.

The last thing mining companies want are politicians who represent the interests of everyone in the state, Republican or Democrat. Those are the protective regulations they are out to destroy.

Wisconsin's mining regulations were created over decades by governors and legislators from both parties based on the state's actual experiences, good and bad, with the mining industry.

But Walker and his boys are really good at wiping out generations of carefully developed policy in a few weeks without listening to opposing arguments.

It is not exactly news that mining in its various forms has a long, ugly history in this country of harming the environment and ignoring the health and safety of workers to deadly and crippling effect.

The mining industry keeps coming up with ever more diabolical ways to send expendable employees after profitable minerals buried deep in the Earth.

It's not faith that moves mountains these days. It's mountaintop removal that blows off the tops of those mountain majesties and dumps the rubble into the towns and streams in the valleys below.

That doesn't mean that mining regulations can't be written to protect the Earth and all its inhabitants while still allowing mining companies to operate responsibly and turn a profit.

But mining companies should never be allowed to write their own regulations behind closed doors with Republicans who believe their corporate campaign contributors should be allowed to do anything they want.

Politicians never publicly admit they care only about the wealthiest 1%. They say removing mining regulations will create 700 jobs in Ashland and Iron counties for those poor people devastated by the economic crisis (which, come to think of it, was created by removing financial regulations).

Reducing the DNR's Role

As soon as Walker became governor, he sought to eliminate the Department of Natural Resources as a guardian of the environment by appointing as its secretary Cathy Stepp, a right-wing state senator and housing developer.

Stepp had previously ridiculed employees of the DNR for caring more about snakes and butterflies than important matters such as the profits of developers.

Well, just in case Stepp hasn't totally succeeded in ridding the department of professionals who care about natural resources, the mining deregulation bill would cut the time for the DNR to approve mining applications and eliminate opportunities for the public to object.

Most importantly, it would ease environmental protections for waterways, groundwater and wetlands. Sure, water is essential for life on this planet. But Republicans now in control don't think excessive worry about protecting our water should cut into the profits of mining companies.

The Bad River band of Chippewa whose tribal lands are downstream from the proposed mine are concerned about the toxic levels of metals and other waste left behind by other mining operations in the state.

But that proves the Republican point that there's nothing around this proposed mine that really matters to the rest of the state. Indian reservations are always located in areas nobody else cares about.

No matter how many toxins are pumped into the waterways by this iron mine, very few voters would be affected. There's really nothing much around but Copper Falls State Park and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest—snakes and butterflies, just like the lady said. Big deal.

It seems particularly cruel to pretend that ending public protections and environmental regulations will benefit working people in the area.

Everyone knows the people left behind in the hills of Kentucky and the rest of Appalachia—among the poorest and most desperate people in America—where natural beauty has been replaced with toxic, abandoned pits and other open wounds of strip mining.

Like John Prine says, "They wrote it all down as the progress of man."

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