MADISON, Wis. — Republicans moved closer Thursday to lifting Wisconsin’s nearly 20-year ban on gold and silver mining, pushing a bill that would eliminate the prohibition through the state Assembly and on to the Senate.

Democrats railed against the measure for more than two hours, warning it would open the door to devastating pollution. But Republicans control the chamber and they insisted the measure could help bring mining back to northern Wisconsin and give the region’s economy a jolt.

“At its very core, we should at least begin to have a discussion about mining that hasn’t taken place since 1998,” said the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, Rep. Rob Hutton of Brookfield.

Legislators passed statutes in 1998 that require sulfide mining applicants to prove a similar mine has operated in North America for a decade without polluting and a similar mine has been closed for 10 years without polluting.

The state Department of Natural Resources has never made a final determination that any applications ever fit those standards, leading critics to brand the statutes a moratorium on mining. Gov. Scott Walker voted for the standards as a member of the Assembly.

The new bill would eliminate the ban. It also would exempt large-scale sampling operations from going through the environmental impact statement process and prohibit administrative law judges from blocking any DNR mining application decision, forcing challengers into trial court.

The bill calls for the DNR to determine whether a mining applicant’s equipment would be capable of complying with air, water and waste standards before granting a permit. It also eliminates requirements that applicants establish a perpetual trust fund to cover environmental damage. Applicants instead would have to maintain financial responsibility for any environmental damage within 40 years of closure. After the 40-year mark, they would have to maintain the water management systems until 250 years have passed.

Assembly Democrats took turns warning Republicans that sulfide mining produces acidic runoff that will poison Wisconsin’s waters for generations.

“This bill has the potential to decimate our environment not just for 10 years or 20 years,” said Rep. Christine Sinicki of Milwaukee. “Before you go down this path, think long and hard about what you’re doing and what you’re putting at risk.”

Democrats also were quick to remind Republicans that they drastically relaxed iron mining regulations in 2013 in hopes that Gogebic Taconite would dig a massive open-pit mine near Lake Superior only to see the company abandon the project without creating any jobs.

“There’s no guarantee with this bill we’ll get one single job,” said Rep. Gary Hebl of Sun Prairie. “We’ve seen that empty promise before.”

Republican Rep. Romaine Quinn of Rice Lake said the bill doesn’t weaken any environmental standards. The moratorium doesn’t serve any purpose because it’s impossible to compare mines in different states since the topography is so different. He said manufacturers need minerals to build computers and cars.

“The vote is green,” Quinn said.

In the end, four Republicans sided with Democrats and voted against the bill. The measure still passed easily, 53-38.

Republicans control the Senate as well, but it’s unclear how much support the bill has in the chamber.

Hutton attached an amendment to the bill Thursday to win Senate Republicans over. He said the amendment ensures mining companies can’t find loopholes to avoid paying taxes; suspend mining during contested case hearings before administrative judges; and delay implementation for six months.

The bill’s chief Senate sponsor, Sen. Tom Tiffany, issued a statement after the vote saying the Senate will take up the bill on Tuesday.


The bill is AB 499.


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