Wagering with Our Water

In 1998, then-Governor Tommy Thompson signed Wisconsin’s sulfide mining restrictions into law. The bill had passed with strong bipartisan support - the margin in the state Assembly was 91-6 and 29-3 in the state Senate. This required companies that want to develop sulfide mines in Wisconsin to demonstrate that another mine in the United States has been able to operate for 10 years and be closed for 10 years without polluting groundwater and surface water. The measure kept sulfide mines out of the state and thus has been referred to as a moratorium.


Now, new legislation introduced by Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and Rob Sutton (R-Brookfield) aims to repeal those restrictions.


Supporters of the bill (LRB2652-1) claim that the repeal has the potential to create a $1 billion industry in Wisconsin. If that’s the case, why was there ever a “moratorium” to begin with? Probably because sulfide mining (also known as acid mining) is considered “the most toxic industry in America,” according to Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters executive director Kerry Schumann. “It creates a toxic waste, acid mine drainage that literally can kill off rivers and streams and lakes and wetlands. It can contaminate drinking water.”


WLCV wasn’t alone in their concerns; Trout Unlimited, Clean Wisconsin, Sierra Club, and River Alliance also started preemptive public education efforts ahead of the release of the bill. 


Sen. Tiffany seems to be primarily interested in the economic potential of the bill, citing the hundreds of jobs that sulfide mining maintains in Minnesota and Michigan.


According to Wisconsin Public Radio, Tiffany’s bill would do more than repeal the mining moratorium law. It would also:

  • Block the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from applying groundwater standards in rock deposits deeper than what is considered usable for drilling wells

  • Remove a requirement for an environmental impact statement when a company proposes to drill for sampling purposes

  • Exempt companies from some solid waste disposal fees


The Mayors Mining Summit, set for Sept. 5 in Stevens Point, is an informational meeting hosted by Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters for Mayor Vruwink of Wisconsin Rapids, Mayor Milkie of Wausau and Mayor Wiza of Stevens Point to be briefed on the contents of Tiffany’s mining bill and how it could impact their local communities. They have invited local legislators and other local elected officials to attend as well, and the meeting is open to the public. The event will be from 10am to noon in Conference Rooms 1 and 2 of the County Annex at 1462 Strongs Avenue. 


If this repeal does come to pass, one has to wonder what has changed since the initial “moratorium” passed 20 years ago with bipartisan support. Has mining technology come a long way, or are our legislators simply more willing to gamble with our natural resources in the name of economic development?

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