As with most issues these days, the proposed iron mine between Mellen and Upson in Northwest Wisconsin has become polarized and partisan. Isn’t there a better way to develop public policy on tough issues?
Most Republicans favor the Assembly bill that would eliminate some existing hurdles to launching a new mine. Most business people, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), favor the streamlined permitting process requested by Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) and its parent company, the Cline Group out of Florida. Environmentalists and many nature lovers up north are largely opposed to the bill. Democrats, who often identify with environmentalists, are torn, because the company has promised to invest $1.5 billion and create 700 jobs to operate the mine.
So, the politics surrounding this mine pivot around two deeply important priorities in Wisconsin: the need to rebuild the state’s damaged job base and its citizens’ reverence for precious lands and waters. Given the passion and complexity surrounding the proposed mine in the Penokee Range, an orderly and transparent political process should be paramount if consensus is to be reached.
The process so far has been anything but orderly and transparent.
Not surprisingly then, the bill lacks anything resembling consensus. Consider the ways in which the process was set up for polarity vs. consensus:
• The bill was put together behind closed doors by Republican assemblymen, some anonymous, with input from Gogebic and WMC. Democrats, Bad River native Americans and environmentalists had no voice in the draft. That one-sided process led to their outright opposition to the bill as proposed.
• A pre-draft hearing was held in Hurley, where signs around town read:
“Mining – Our History
Mining – Our Culture
Mining – Our Future”
A single post-introduction hearing was held in West Allis, a process blunder that infuriated locals on both sides of the mining issue in Iron and Ashland Counties. Pressure from two northern Democrats in the minority, who called their own hearing, prompted the Republicans to hurriedly call a much-needed second committee hearing in Hurley.
• Republicans, who, for now, control both houses of the legislature and governorship, plan to push the bill quickly to passage prior to almost-certain recall elections this spring.
That fast-track process may prove to be shortsighted. Building a mine is an elongated, multi-year project, and it is entirely possible that the GOP will not be in control of both houses and/or the governor’s chair come this fall. GTAC could run into many hurdles down the road raised by today’s opponents who have been shunted out of the process.
The point is: process is important. Gathering input from all affected parties takes more time up front, but could save road blocks later. The state senate appears to be taking a more deliberate approach.
Now, let’s be realistic: some environmentalists will oppose the mine whatever the safeguards, even as they drive their metal cars and see no hypocrisy in that. Other environmentalists have legitimate complaints about the proposed 360-day process and the potential end-arounds on protection of the Bad River and adjacent lakes, streams, rivers and groundwater in the watershed.
But an unending, indefinite permitting process, which environmental bureaucrats often engender, is not acceptable either. The company needs a timeline with some certainty.
On the other side, GeoTac has kept its cards tight to its chest on how it proposes to operate the mine in terms of tailings, water use and contamination. The company has put out lots of information on the potential economic benefits of the mine, but little on environmental impacts.
It is pushing hard to win the permitting changes before it tips its hand on its environmental management system (EMS). GeoTac would gain credibility if it disclosed its planned EMS now. They surely know now most of what they are going to do in that regard.
The state and the northern region need the jobs. The world needs the iron. But, we also need to protect our state’s waters and lands. There has to be a way to open the mine and have minimal long term impact on those natural resources. At least two other mines in Wisconsin have been operated without major environmental damage.
To get to sensible legislation, the state needs an open process so a reasonable compromise can be reached. That means a deliberate process, but not an unending one.
In the end, such a compromise means that no stakeholder will be completely happy with the final legislation. It also means the economy can move forward with acceptable trade-offs in terms of the environment.
(Disclosure: I am a director of WMC and The Nature Conservancy, which opposes the current bill, but am speaking for neither in this posting.)