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Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

Issue of the Week: Scrap the Mining Bill

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How far will the Walker administration and the Fitzgerald brothers go to pass a new iron mining bill in the state Legislature?

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has proven that he's willing to trample on the legislative process to get his way. Incredibly, Fitzgerald scrapped a committee that he set up, and whose members he selected, so that the more pro-industry Assembly version of the bill could be rushed through the Senate.

When the Joint Finance Committee, chaired by state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington), heard testimony on Friday, even more questions were raised about the bill.

Republicans and executives from Gogebic Taconite, the company that would build and operate a mine in northern Wisconsin, swore that the bill wouldn't weaken the state's environmental standards. But Dennis Grzezinski, senior counsel at Midwest Environmental Advocates, testified that while the state's standards would remain the same, the bill would specifically exempt iron ore mining companies from adhering to them. Grzezinski called that tactic a "shell game."

Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) noted that Gogebic received permits to begin boring to prepare for the mine in early 2011, but it hasn't used those permits yet. The proposed bill would allow Gogebic to keep its findings private and not release them to the public.

Even worse? According to two geologists, the state doesn't even know much about the composition of the rocks that make up the Penokee Range, which would be strip-mined in search of iron. That's a big problem, since the geologists—Jason Huberty and Joseph Skulan—did a little digging on their own and found that the rocks contain sulfide minerals. The mining of these sulfide-containing rocks could have a huge, negative impact on the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior.

But perhaps the most damning testimony came from Mike Wiggins Jr., chair of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which opposes the mine. The mine would impact the Bad River, which flows through the tribe's reservation and into Lake Superior. But Wiggins testified that legislators who drafted the bill never included the tribe—like all tribes within the territory of the United States, the Bad River Chippewa is a sovereign nation that holds treaties with the federal government—in discussions about the legislation and the mine.

Since legislators didn't consult with the tribe when crafting the Assembly version of the bill—the version that Sen. Fitzgerald is now pushing through the Senate—the tribe may be able to sue in federal court. A decision favoring the tribe could pull the plug on the mine altogether.

"What's ironic to me is that there's this talk about creating certainty with this [bill] for the mining company," Wiggins told the committee. "When really what you're creating is complete uncertainty from a litigation standpoint as it relates to the Lake Superior Chippewa."

Wiggins said the tribe was "a poor tribe" in financial terms, but "one of the richest tribes" in what really matters—natural resources such as clean air, water and beauty.

Fitzgerald's iron-mining-friendly bill would change all that.

On Tuesday, Jauch, a Democrat, and state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican from Richland Center, offered a compromise bill that would provide more environmental oversight, increase funds paid to local governments affected by the mine, and strengthen wetlands mitigation requirements.

If Wisconsin decides to change its mining requirements, the Jauch and Schultz compromise is a better place to start.

Heroes of the Week
: Benedict Center Volunteers

Founded in 1974 on principles of restorative justice, the Benedict Center (135 W. Wells St.) offers support and educational services to women who are or have been involved with the criminal justice system and want to transform their lives. With a small staff and hundreds of community volunteers, the center provides a variety of programs to help individuals move forward and reintegrate into society.

In addition to visiting inmates to offer counseling, reading groups and simple companionship, volunteers also staff a street outreach team and the "Women's Harm Reduction Program," which addresses treatment for past trauma, stress and anger management, cognitive-behavioral strategies, educational immersion and skills to support healthy lifestyles and family-sustaining employment.

Readers who wish to volunteer their time and talents to the Benedict Center are directed to call 414-347-1774 or visit www.benedictcenter.org for more information.
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