Wisconsin Senate passes mining bill

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin Republicans inched closer Wednesday to passing their divisive mining legislation, pushing the proposal through the state Senate by a single vote after a draining debate with Democrats who insist the measure will open the door to devastating pollution.

The bill will now go to the state Assembly. Republicans who control that chamber have scheduled a vote for next week. Passage is all but certain. From there the legislation will go to GOP Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.

Republicans have been working for nearly two years to help Gogebic Taconite dig an open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. Their bill would make sweeping changes to the state's mining rules to clear the company's regulatory path. Republicans insist the measure would help the company create hundreds of jobs at the mine and pave the way for thousands more around the state. Walker, eager to deliver on job creation promises, wants the bill on his desk.

``What you have in front of you tonight is a 21st-century mining bill,'' said Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, the bill's chief Senate sponsor. ``Now we have the possibility of a rebirth of an industry here in the state of Wisconsin.''

Democrats and conservationists contend the job promises are wildly exaggerated. They argue the bill would loosen environmental protections and allow the mine to pollute one of the last pristine areas of the state.

``Nobody wins tonight,'' said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, whose district includes the mine site. ``The fact of the matter is illusion has fed the public appetite that somehow there are thousands of jobs right around the corner ... We are one vote short of a responsible state Senate that cares about the future of this state.''

Under the bill, the state Department of Natural Resources would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision. Right now, the process is open-ended. The public couldn't challenge a DNR permit decision until after it was made, and damage a mine might cause to wetlands would be presumed necessary. Applicants would have to submit a plan to compensate for damage, however, which would include a proposal for creating up to an acre and a half of new wetlands for every acre impacted.