WISCONSIN - Saying that a successful 1990s mining operation in Ladysmith means the state no longer needs a 19-year-old law, State Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) said he will move to repeal Wisconsin's 1998 mining moratorium law.
A successful repeal of the moratorium could make it easier for companies looking to open copper, lead, and zinc mines in the state.
"[The Flambeau Mine in Ladysmith] has been closed for over ten years now. There's no effluent coming out. The courts have said they did an 'exemplary' job of closure," Tiffany said. "That's why I believe the statute can be removed from the law."
The state legislature passed the moratorium in 1998, drawing broad support from Republicans and Democrats. Republican Governor Tommy Thompson signed it into law.
The law requires companies interested in mining minerals called sulfides - most commonly, copper, lead, and zinc - to show examples of similar American or Canadian mines which have operated without surface or groundwater issues.
"They have to submit examples of mining operations that essentially didn't cause environmental problems," said DNR Statewide Metallic Mining Coordinator Larry Lynch.
Tiffany thinks the law is outdated.
"There's really no reason for us to have a moratorium on those jobs that could be here in Wisconsin, if a company proves they can do it in an environmentally safe manner," he said.
The current law forces mining companies to show examples of two specific sulfide mines. It must provide the DNR with one American or Canadian mine which has been open ten years without surface and groundwater problems. It must also show one which has been closed for ten years without similar problems.
Because of the nature of their geology, sulfide mines run a higher risk of environmental problems. When sulfides are exposed to water and oxygen, they create sulfuric acid.
"One of the byproducts is acidic runoff, or acidic leaching," Lynch said. "That's a big problem, as far as environmental management of these types of mine sites."
The current mining moratorium doesn't apply to iron ore mines. That's due to a special exemption created by a 2013 law governing iron ore mine permitting, which Tiffany helped push through.
Tiffany used the Flambeau Mine in Ladysmith as a reason why the state no longer needs a sulfide mining moratorium. That copper and gold mine operated for about four years in the 1990s, after which it was reclaimed as a prairie and wetland. In 2012, federal judge Barbara Crabb ruled the company's environmental practices were "exemplary," even though it violated some federal clean water laws.
"In effect, the court decision satisfied the moratorium," Tiffany said. "I believe the statute is no longer relevant."
Tiffany likes the example of the Flambeau Mine, even though the Flambeau Mine wasn't open the ten years required as part of the law.
"I see it as a difference without a distinction, in terms of, it operated successfully for the period of time it was there. I think the key thing the public is looking for is, 'Is there that closure for ten years that has been successful?' They've satisfied that now," he said.
Tiffany's proposal drew immediate criticism on the Flambeau Mine comparison from legislative Democrats.
"It's a mini-mine. It's a little mini-mine," state Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Delta) said of the Flambeau Mine, whose open pit was just 35 acres. "You can't look at the teeny little Flambeau Mine and then wash your hands and say, 'Oh, we can do this again.' It's just not comparable."
Bewley was also skeptical of Tiffany's motivations.
"Who's asking? Why? Who wants to do what, and whose ox is going to be gored when it happens? I want the backstory, first of all," she said.
Tiffany said no specific company has contacted him about mining a sulfide ore deposit in Wisconsin. But he pointed out ore deposits in the area, like the deposit in the town of Lynne in western Oneida County.
Despite both Democrats and Republicans supporting the 1998 law, Tiffany signaled confidence in convincing current Republicans, who hold wide majorities in the state Senate and Assembly, to back a repeal.
He relayed a conversation with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) in a recent Senate caucus.
"[Fitzgerald] said it is one of the issues he regrets, having voted for [the moratorium in 1998]," said Tiffany. "He said, 'I made a mistake in voting for that.'"
On Friday, Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Fitzgerald, said, "Sen. Fitzgerald clarified that he wished he had approached the issue differently" at the time.
Tiffany has been no stranger to mining issues in the last several years.
He was the main force behind the new iron ore mining law Republican Governor Scott Walker signed in 2013 in Rhinelander. Critics said it weakened environmental protections. At the time, Gogebic Taconite was considering constructing a massive iron ore mine in Iron and Ashland counties.
Gogebic Taconite scrapped plans for the mine in 2015, blaming difficulties with federal regulations.
In an interview Dec. 22 at the Governor's Mansion in Madison, Walker agreed with Tiffany's conclusion that the ore body would be mined at some point.
"I'm not promising anything. I don't have any guarantees," Walker said. "But I think it is possible that [mining companies] might give it another look, whether it be to this project or something like that in the future."
Walker believes the incoming Trump administration, and an EPA led by its new administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, could make things easier on mining companies.
"We'd have to see some changes, which we hope will come," Walker said. "Then we have something to show a would-be employer out there that yes, things have changed, things are different. Otherwise, trying to attract them now probably just gets us to the same point we were before."
Tiffany also wants major federal regulatory changes.
"I sure hope that there are changes made, in particular at the EPA, also the Corps of Engineers , but in particular at the EPA, because they've really been a rogue agency now for the past eight years," he said. "That's an EPA that's out of control."
But Bewley, whose legislative district includes the site of the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine, said she's hearing something different from her constituents.
"What happened with Gogebic Taconite and the iron ore debacle is fresh because they don't want to go down that road again," Bewley said.
She's also is skeptical of mining companies' interest in exploring the deposit.
"They will exploit Australia far sooner than they're going to worry about northern Wisconsin," she said. "There is a very cool, if not cold, attitude towards mining iron ore in northern Wisconsin."
Link to Ben Meyer's full interview with Gov. Walker