By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans' divisive mining bill would cost the state more than $170 million that would be used for recycling and environmental protection every year, according to new projections.
The bill is designed to clear the regulatory path for Gogebic Taconite's plans for a huge open-pit iron mine just south of Lake Superior in the Penokee Range. The bill has sparked one of the fiercest environmental debates the state has seen in years.
Republicans insist the bill will help the company create hundreds of jobs in economically depressed northwestern Wisconsin; Democrats and conservationists insist the bill would open the door to devastating pollution and ruin one of the state's most pristine regions.
Estimates the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau released Wednesday show the bill would reduce the state's current $7.02 per ton fee on mining waste rock to a little less than 3 cents per ton. The change would result in a loss of up to $171 million annually that would go to help fund local governments' recycling efforts, sediment and water pollution abatement, brownfield cleanup and the issuance of bonds for cleaning up contaminated land.
"It's part of why so many people object to the bill just on economic grounds," state Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, said Thursday. "It's a free ride for a mining company."
The bill's author, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said that it doesn't make sense to retain the $7 recycling fee since Gogebic Taconite plans to use the waste to fill the pit when the mine eventually closes.
"This is not a recyclable material," Tiffany said. "The waste rock ... will be used in the reclamation. That's the rationale."
The fiscal bureau's estimates are based on Gogebic Taconite projections that the company will produce about 8 million long tons - 2,240 pounds is a long ton - of iron annually over the mine's 35-year first phase.
The bureau said that could result in about 29 million short tons - 2,000 pounds is a short ton - of waste rock annually and perhaps a billion tons of waste rock over 35 years. Annual waste would consist of about 18 million tons of tailings, the crushed ore waste left over from processing iron pellets, and 11 million tons of overburden, or rock overlaying or surrounding the ore body, according to the bureau.
Based on the bill's new 2.7-cent per ton fee, the state likely would collect up to $785,000 annually once the mine was in full production. If the $7 fee remained in place, Gogebic Taconite would have to pay more than $172 million, the estimates said.
The fiscal bureau prepared the estimates for the Legislature's budget committee, which is scheduled to vote on the bill Monday. Approval would clear the way for a full vote in the state Senate and Assembly.
Passage is all but certain; Republicans control the committee and both legislative houses. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has said the full Senate will vote Wednesday.