By: Dave Murphy.  Posted by: Ron Tusler

The Assembly passed Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) this week. This is the first ferrous mining regulatory legislation in the history of our state.

I voted for this bill because after more than two years of personal research, including touring the potential mine site, I believe we can responsibly mine for iron ore and reclaim the natural beauty of the area. I spoke with both supporters and opponents of iron mining, including my constituents, people from elsewhere in the state, and environmental experts. I learned that the area people refer to as ‘pristine’ was mined for 85 years with no regulation or cleanup. We can do better.

I believe we can do better at preserving water quality than, for example, the Bad River Tribe. The Tribe has struggled for years to attain even the minimum level of water quality expected by any other community in our state. According to federal records, their own sewage treatment plant is the worst in Wisconsin and the plant is operating without a permit. They’ve been cited for Clean Water Act violations 38 times, due to the excessive amounts of E. coli, solids, and phosphorus released into the Bad River since 2007. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documentation is available through an internet search. As a sovereign nation, their water is their business, but it affects us all. I am confident in the regulatory authority the state and federal governments will have to preserve water quality, should a mine be built in the future. In particular, I trust the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to protect the natural resources of Wisconsin, and the safety of our environment. Our DNR is an excellent watchdog.

I voted for this bill because it offers a chance. The overriding message I heard from citizens was that the potential for thousands of family-supporting jobs for decades cannot be denied, especially in the largely jobless north. Tourism alone doesn’t give you that kind of salary. Providing the opportunity (not a guarantee) for those jobs to materialize is part of the job of government.

Contrary to what you may have heard, this bill does not reduce air quality, surface water, or safe drinking water standards. It does not increase limits on pollutants or emissions. It doesn’t approve or permit a mine; instead, it creates the framework for companies interested in obtaining a permit to get a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer on whether they can proceed. It builds on the mining laws we already have in Wisconsin and the federal laws the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA are required to follow.

I realize there are differing opinions on this issue, and I know everything we do impacts something else. That’s why we analyze the information, history, and possible future of an idea and decide if the potential benefits outweigh the risks. We make the best decision we can at the time, knowing nothing can be perfect. This mining bill requires any wetland acres that are filled must be replaced with a larger number of acres somewhere else. Some say all wetlands are unique, and while that may be true, replacing them is an option to improve the sum total of wetland acreage. Frankly, you can’t do any project without changing something.

Some folks have told me that the majority of Wisconsinites don’t support this legislation. Although I disagree with that unproven premise, even if it were true, we’d have to stand up for a specific minority: those in the north who need consistent jobs and a future for their families and communities.

Leslie Kolesar, a housewife and registered nurse from Iron County, is a founding member of the Bad River Watershed Association. She testified at hearings and press conferences, and talked with me personally about this issue. Leslie has lived 500 feet from an unreclaimed open pit mine since she was a child. Two things she said really resonated with me. Leslie said Iron County’s only export is our children. Our children move elsewhere to live, work, and raise their families. She also asked that we consider both the natural environment and the human environment in making our decisions. People are part of the ecosystem, too.

I agree with those who say we only have one chance to build, operate and reclaim a mining area the right way. But there’s more than one way to get it right. There’s no magic wand to fix problems, but that doesn’t mean we stop striving to make our world better. My hope is that people who love Wisconsin can stay and earn enough to support their families, and those who want to move here can do the same.