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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Stinky Process, Stinky Bill

Rat snuck into the December 14 Assembly Committee on Jobs, Small Business and the Economy hearing on their fit-for-the-garbage-pail (and I don’t mean that in a good way) mining bill. Held in Milwaukee so the suits at Caterpillar, one of the biggest manufacturers of mining equipment in the world, could claim that jobs would be saved in Milwaukee if a big strip mine is allowed in northern Wisconsin, the committee’s ploy ended up biting them in the behind.

The suits were certainly there, but they were far outnumbered by folks who saw the bill for what it is – a give-away of Wisconsin’s natural resources to an out-of-state company. People came from around the state, including a busload of opponents from Ashland County where the impacts from a strip mine would be focused, who braved icy roads and an over seven-hour drive to be there. It was hard to avoid getting stepped on as the room was packed with about 400 people, and of the people who registered to speak, opponents outnumbered supporters 121 to 64, a ratio of 2:1.

Here’s what River Alliance Policy Program Manager/River Rat Lori Grant had to say to the committee:

“In 2006, after several years of work, the River Alliance was very pleased when the legislature designated 40 northern rivers as Outstanding and Exceptional Resource Waters. Six were in the Bad River Watershed, including the Bad River itself. In 2009, the Brunsweiler River, also in the Bad River Watershed, was the first state Wild River designated in over 40 years. But now we fear those efforts may have been a waste of time.

To be clear, the River Alliance of Wisconsin is not opposed to mining in general, or a fair process for considering a mine – as long as the environment is protected. However, any strip mine constructed and operated in the Bad River Watershed under the proposed bill would be allowed to irreparably damage these pristine waterways and the watershed as a whole.

Make no mistake – this bill substantially reduces environmental protections from mining.

We are opposed to:

Rushing the bill to hearing without providing citizens the opportunity to read and understand it’s far-reaching implications for our natural resources

Preventing the citizens most impacted by a mine, not to mention DNR, from challenging the information provided by a mining company

Forcing DNR to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement and make permit decisions in an absurdly short time frame, without adequate staff or funds - in essence removing science from the permit process

But our greatest concerns are the drastic changes to protections for water.

Unlike Minnesota and Michigan, those states most cited as having model mining laws, as well as Wisconsin’s current mining law, this bill creates “special” environmental standards for iron mines. Other industries and businesses in the state, not to mention property owners, must adhere to common, statewide standards to protect groundwater, lakes, streams and wetlands. But this bill sets its own standards for mining, and goes so far to state that where the mining law conflicts with other laws, the mining law trumps all others.

These “special” standards:

Allow mine wastes to be piled next to rivers and lakes, in floodplains and areas where groundwater contamination is deemed likely. A property owner can’t build their cottage too close to the water, but mine wastes with up to a 50% slope? No problem.

Require DNR to allow critical wetlands to be filled, as long as there is mitigation someplace in the state. That certainly doesn’t do much for the rivers fed by that wetland if the mitigation is three counties away.

Completely reverse consideration for making major alterations to rivers – dredging, filling, widening, straightening (or shall we say burying in mine waste or obliterating altogether?). Current law prohibits alterations that do irreparable damage to natural resources. Instead, the bill requires DNR to allow such alterations if they will not “significantly” impair public rights or degrade water quality. The term “significantly” is not defined, and the bill prohibits DNR from creating rules that would better define or list criteria for making such a call. Given that one of the stated intentions of the bill is to take subjective decisions out of the mine review process, this provision adds more.

The bill requires DNR to allow huge groundwater withdrawals and direct withdrawals from rivers or lakes, even if it will severely draw down the resource. Why? Because remarkably, the bill declares that the needs of the mine, when it comes to water withdrawals, are in the best interest of the public. The needs of a mine are declared to prevail over drinking water and trout streams?

This is just a short list of the potential damage the bill would allow, but the overriding presumption that mining should be permitted at all cost is pervasive throughout the bill. The River Alliance cannot support any bill that maintains this presumption”.

It should be quite on the mining front until after the holidays, but Rat will be keeping nose to the ground on this one.

1 comment:

  1. Even though we are over here in Door County water quality in northern Wisconsin is very important to us too. The Walker bunch has proposed and already done some pretty crazy stuff and it sounds like this mine thing is something they are really going to push for. I don't doubt that it will provide some good paying jobs, but at what cost to the environment? You guys are doing an important job, keep up the good work.