It may not be what you think.
The passage of Wisconsin's massive mining deregulation bill is a stunning example of the massive influence that private corporations have come to enjoy in Wisconsin state government under the reign of Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature since 2010. Despite overwhelming opposition from scientists, conservationists, hunters, fishers, local government officials, Native Sovereign Nations, and the general public, the measure passed the senate last week on a 17-16 vote and is likely to pass by a larger margin in the Assembly this Thursday. (The Senate bill is SB1; the Assembly bill is AB1.)
It is the second time around for this wholesale regulatory giveaway to Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a newly formed company owned by the Florida-based coal-mining magnate Chris Cline. Last year the bill failed in the senate when Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) broke from his caucus with a no vote. After the November 2012 elections the Republican majority in the senate grew from one to three seats. Opponents of the bill had hoped to sway the vote of one more senate Republican, to no avail.
Earlier in the week the bill passed out of the Joint Committee on Finance on a party line vote. Democrats on the committee attempted to reduce the impact of the more egregious aspects of the bill by introducing several amendments, all of which were rejected on 12-4 votes. Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) criticized provisions that weaken protections for public health, safety and the environment, and others that shift the burden for costs of infrastructure development and maintenance on to local communities. The bill, he said, is "a sweetheart deal for the company and a raw deal for Wisconsin citizens."
In this excerpt from the committee meeting Mason asks why the Department of Natural Resources' authority is expanded when it comes to permitting, but reduced when it comes to enforcement. In this video Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) challenges the language in the bill that says, "adverse impacts on wetlands are presumed to be necessary," and the provision that allows mining companies to fill in streams, lakes, and wetlands with sulfuric acid producing mining waste. Public health also takes a backseat to the profit imperative with changes in the law explained here.
During the eight-hour floor debate in the Senate last week, Democrats railed against Republicans for caving in to the interests of GTac.
Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) represents the region on the shores of Lake Superior in which GTac's 22-mile, 1,000-foot deep mountain top removal project would be located. He asked his colleagues, "Are we going to sustain a government that becomes stewards for the future generations, or are we going to become a government that is subservient to the corporate world and oblivious to the public interest?"
Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), the longest serving state legislator in U.S. history, having been first elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1956, thinks that point has already been reached. "This bill is the biggest giveaway of resources since the days of the railroad barons," he said.
Other senators representing the Madison area agreed. Sen. Mark Miller (D-Madison) said that as he drove to work that morning he felt like he was going to visit the deathbed of a family member or close friend. "Who is that friend? It's Wisconsin's bipartisan legacy of defending natural resources." Referring to GTac's proposed first stage of the project, he added, "The wound is one mile by four miles by 1,000-feet deep."
Senators reported that constituent contacts to their offices about the bill were more than nine-to-one in opposition. Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) said 95% of calls and letters urged him to vote no on the bill.
This week Hansen raised a question about a proposal by Scott Walker buried in his budget to repeal a century-old law that prohibits foreign corporations and governments from controlling land in the state. He wondered if it was linked to the mining issue: "Throughout the mining debate we heard over and over again that Gogebic Mining, which does coal mining and owns the rights to the mineral deposit in northern Wisconsin, has no interest in actually doing the mining themselves, that they would prefer to sell the rights to someone else."
Last year Walker travelled to Dallas to meet a contingent of Chinese investors, and he is scheduled to travel to China on a trade mission next month. Hansen worries that these visits are connected to the GTac project. His statement continues, "China is the world's largest producer of iron ore and as one of the world's largest markets they have the ability to affect supply and prices. China has also recently begun expanding its mining operations outside of its borders, including opening the massive Sino Iron project at Cape Preston, in Western Australia's Pilbara region."
Despite the fast-tracking of the bill, grassroots opposition is gaining steam. The night before the senate vote and the day of its passage, people came from all over the state to express their concerns for the water and other natural resources that would be destroyed by the mining project.
Mike Wiggins, Jr., chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose members stand to be most directly affected, spoke from the floor of the rotunda: "For some, this may have already felt like a long journey. I'm sure those legislators are tired. They've spent over two years to get this through. But for our people, people that are connected to the earth and water, rainbow warriors, it hasn't even been the blink of an eye yet." He vowed that they would "stand against this type of initiative" until it is stopped.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website.