Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin signed a law repealing a virtual statewide ban on nonferrous mining that had been in place for nearly 20 years.
Walker signed the “Mining for America Act” on December 11, 2017, repealing provisions of the “Prove It First” law passed in 1998, which required any company seeking a permit to develop a sulfide mine to prove another mine in the United States or Canada operating for at least 10 years did not pollute groundwater or surface water during its time of operation and for at least 10 years after closure.
Historically, Wisconsin operators mined sulfide rock deposits to extract minerals containing copper, zinc, gold, and silver. The 1997 law was enacted to prevent sulfide mining operations for fear they might create acidic runoff and pollute ground and surface water. The permitting uncertainty and high costs of the required proof effectively prevented the development of new mines, and the last Wisconsin sulfide mine closed in 1999.
The new law also changes the locations where groundwater standards apply; repeals a Department of Natural Resources rule intended to minimize impacts on wetlands; reforms the application, review, and permitting processes; and exempts mining from certain solid-waste disposal fees.
‘A Massive Economic Upside’
Chris Rochester, communications director for the MacIver Institute, says supporters of the new law, including cosponsor state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), hope the reform will encourage economic development in northern Wisconsin.
“Opening up the opportunity for mining has a massive economic upside,” said Rochester. “Sen. Tiffany has said he believes northern Wisconsin could be a ‘treasure chest’ filled with billions of dollars in natural resources.
“If mining takes root again, the ‘brain drain’ of young, talented people leaving the northern part of the state could be reversed by creating untold numbers of good jobs,” Rochester said. “Mining can help the communities there prosper again.”
Environmental Standards in Place
In his signing statement, Walker said environmental quality should not decline under the law, because any new mine must comply with existing state environmental laws.
“The Department of Natural Resources must find that the technology to be used at a proposed mine is capable of resulting in compliance with air, groundwater, surface water, and solid/hazardous waste management laws,” Walker said in a statement.
Isaac Orr, a research fellow with The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says history shows sulfide mining can be done in an environmentally responsible manner.
“The Flambeau mine in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, which operated from 1993 to 1997, is a textbook example of sulfide mining in a water-rich environment,” said Orr. “According to information from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), levels of copper, sulfate, manganese, and iron in groundwater samples are below the levels considered acceptable by the DNR.
“Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has recently voiced his support for the Polymet mine in northern Minnesota, showing there is bipartisan support for responsible mining in the Upper Midwest,” Orr said.
Joe Barnett ([email protected]) is a program development consultant with the Beacon Hill Institute.
State Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst): https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/legislators/senate/1528; [email protected]