On Thursday, WMC General Counsel and Director of Environmental and Energy Policy Lucas Vebber testified before the Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage and Forestry in support of Senate Bill 395 which would end the mining moratorium in Wisconsin. This is what he told the committee (as prepared).

Chairman Tiffany and Committee Members:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Lucas Vebber and I am the General Counsel at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC). WMC is the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers’ association. With approximately 3,800 members, we are the largest business trade association in Wisconsin. WMC represents members from all over Wisconsin of all sizes and in every sector of the state’s economy. I am here today to testify in support of Senate Bill 395.

We support this legislation because it will benefit every corner of Wisconsin, open the door to significant investment and job creation, and ensure that our state’s pristine environment is maintained for future generations.

I. Background

Wisconsin’s mining heritage is well known. Generations of Wisconsinites throughout our state supported themselves, their families and their communities through mining. Even today Wisconsinites manufacture heavy equipment for mining operations around the globe. Wisconsin’s legal, scientific and engineering experts provide critical services to ensure mining operations in other states and countries are planned, operated and reclaimed to the highest environmental standards. Wisconsinites who wish to work directly in mining here in our state, however, are prohibited by state law from having that opportunity.

That law, the mining moratorium, was put in place in the late 90s and specifically prohibits a company from applying for a new mining permit. The moratorium has worked, no company has permitted a mine here in Wisconsin in more than 20 years.

This week, the Joint Committee on Finance voted to approve a financing package for a historic, once-in-a-generation economic development opportunity. The Foxconn project will transform our state’s economy. While centered in southeast Wisconsin, it will benefit communities and employers throughout the state. Mining can do the same for northern Wisconsin, at no cost to the state. Pass this legislation and let mining companies enter an in-depth, three year long process to fully vet each project with full public involvement and oversight, and open northern Wisconsin up to incredible new jobs and economic development.

II. Wisconsin’s Economy Depends on Raw Materials

There is no doubt that Wisconsin is a manufacturing state. Within Wisconsin we have more manufacturing jobs than any other sector, and per capita we have more manufacturing jobs than just about any other state. Manufacturing drives Wisconsin and Wisconsin’s future is tied to manufacturing. Manufacturing requires raw materials. We cannot make products without something to make it from.

Those materials are going to be mined. With this legislation they could be mined right here in Wisconsin subject to some of the most stringent environmental protections in the world. Without this legislation they will continue to be mined in other countries that do far, far less to care for our environment. Anyone who actually cares about our planet and our environment should be clamoring to have these materials mined here. Instead, we have seen nothing but radical environmental groups misleading the public to scare up more members and pad their own bottom lines.

Wisconsin companies need raw materials. Producing them here is better for the environment, creates more jobs and economic opportunity right here in our home state, and gives Wisconsin manufacturers much greater access to materials.

III. Modern Mining Is Environmentally Safe and Economically Viable

Wisconsin has not had a metallic mine since the mid-90s. Yesterday, this committee and the public had an opportunity to see the pristine acreage that was once the Flambeau Mine. It has been more than twenty years since the Flambeau mine was planned, operated, and reclaimed. It has been held up as a model of economic success and environmental protection. Today, we are in one of the most beautiful communities in our state. If no one told you, you would never know a mine used to be located here. That is the way it should be, and the way it will continue to be when this legislation passes.

Radical environmentalists have been trying to mislead the public about the Flambeau Mine’s legacy. One such group that uses environmental issues to scare the public and raise money tweeted this week that “a federal judge found that the mine violated the Clean Water Act 11 times.” What they did not tweet was that the Seventh Circuit overturned that judge and found zero violations of the Clean Water Act.

Another environmental fundraising group has been tweeting pictures of orange rivers claiming that this legislation will somehow lead to “rivers of acid” in our state. Despite their over-the-top rhetoric, Wisconsin law never has and never will allow rivers of acid. Take a look at the river right here in Ladysmith that was located right next to the Flambeau Mine and try to make a serious argument that a mining operation will negatively impact a river. Still, opponents of this legislation will say just about anything to mislead the public into opposing these changes; that is both unfortunate and sad.

Technology continues to advance. We have proven beyond a doubt that mines can operate safely and efficiently here in our state. They’ve done so for generations, and as recently as twenty years ago, and I guarantee you we could do it even better today. Repeal the mining moratorium and give the industry a chance to permit a project, maintain our pristine environment, and put a whole lot of our friends and neighbors to work in the process.

IV. What This Bill Does

With that background, I now turn to what this legislation actually does to open the door to gamechanging economic development and career opportunities for northern Wisconsin. Here’s an overview of the key sections of this legislation:

  1. Repeals the Mining Moratorium

Wis. Stat. § 293.50 of the statutes, entitled “Moratorium on issuance of permits for mining of sulfide ore bodies” contains the moratorium language. Section 37 of this legislation repeals it outright.

  1. Establishes a Bulk Sampling Framework for Metallic Mining

This legislation creates a process known as “bulk sampling” for metallic mining operations. This would allow a mining company to conduct small-scale exploration operations to gather information about a potential mine site which ultimately will benefit the permitting process and the environment.

  1. Makes Certain Application and Timeline Certainty Changes

The bill establishes deadlines throughout the application process to ensure that whether an application is approved or denied, there is at least some certainty that a final decision will be made. The bill also requires DNR to work towards a memorandum of understanding with the Army Corps of Engineers and other relevant federal agencies to help streamline the regulatory process and reduce costs for everyone.

  1. Ensures Public Involvement and Due Process of Law

The bill also maintains strong public involvement with public hearing and contested case requirements. It adds more specific timelines to those in order to ensure that a decision, whether for or against a proposed mining operation, is made within a reasonable period of time.

  1. Protects Existing Water Supplies

This legislation makes absolutely no changes to numerical water standards. The same stringent standards will apply after this legislation is signed into law. Additionally, the bill protects existing water supplies by ensuring that any new mining operation has no unreasonable detriment to any public or private water supply.

This legislation also adds some common sense back to our state’s regulatory scheme. It limits modeling that may be required for a permit applicant to 250 years, and it applies drinking water standards only to water that could actually be used for drinking water.

  1. Eliminates Unreasonable and Unnecessary Regulations

Current regulations require a mining company to maintain an irrevocable trust in perpetuity to be responsible for the mining site. This regulation was in put in place after the mining moratorium was implemented and has never been used on a metallic mine in Wisconsin. This is far beyond what any other state requires, and must be changed. This legislation requires a mining company to provide proof of financial responsibility but would clearly prohibit DNR from requiring a trust to operate in perpetuity.

Lastly, current wetland regulations were enacted after the metallic mining administrative code provisions. This legislation repeals the older metallic mining specific wetland regulations and would subject a metallic mine to the same, more stringent, current wetland requirements that exist for others in Wisconsin.

Conclusion

This legislation can open the door to significant economic development in Wisconsin. It has been more than 20 years since a mine was permitted in Wisconsin. Our neighbors are jumping at the opportunity to bring in these jobs because they know it can be economically beneficial and environmentally sustainable. We can do the same right here in Wisconsin. We ask that you support this legislation to give mining companies the chance to begin exploring what they could do for Wisconsin.