It is hard to find a difference between the most recent mining controversy and the one we lived through in the 1990s.
George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
With the recent defeat in the state Senate of a bill to gut environmental safeguards on mining, perhaps a variant of that quote should be: “Those who repeat the past are protecting our environment.”
In 1998, the Legislature listened to strong public opinion and voted for safeguards to protect our state waters from a potentially damaging mining project. Earlier this month, history repeated itself when the state Senate again heeded public sentiment and kept safeguards for our waterways in force in the face of another one.
While the two actions occurred 14 years apart, the similarities are striking. In both cases, an out-of-state corporation waged an expensive, high-pressure lobbying campaign for weakening mining laws. In 1998, it was Exxon Mining, and this year, it was Florida-based strip mining giant Cline Resources and Development. Both mines were to be located in the headwaters of large and pristine state rivers — in 1998 it was the Wolf River and this year, the Bad River.
And neither legislative action was a decision about whether the mine should be built but a vote on whether Wisconsin law should require that any mine permitted must be built and operated without grave damage to our environment.
This legislative session, the Florida mining company repeatedly called the proposed bill simply a “streamlining of the state permit process.” In reality, the bill amounted to a wholesale dismemberment of environment safeguards. The bill would have allowed the dumping of waste in state lakes and wetlands and the destruction of state natural areas. It would have further gutted state law by legalizing the pollution of large areas of groundwater.
The mining corporation and its GOP allies played up the potential for jobs in an economically distressed area and some press accounts uncritically repeated a company claim that vastly inflated the potential for employment. A more thorough economic analysis would have been welcome. While the mine would create several hundred jobs, the reality is that few of them would have gone to locals. The jobs would have been filled by out-of-state miners who already have the necessary skills and are without a job because of the boom and bust nature of mining. Also important to consider is the adverse impact that a massive open pit mine would have on jobs in tourism, currently the major employer in that area.
The mining bill failed because an independently minded Republican senator, Dale Schultz, voted his conscience rather than his party and joined Democrats to defeat the bill 17-16. It had previously passed the state Assembly on a party-line vote. Schultz’s vote made the difference because of last summer’s recall elections, which narrowed the GOP’s margin in the Senate from 19-14 to 17-16. For anyone who is unsure about the impact of last summer’s recall elections, the defeat of this bill should put any doubts to rest.
Interestingly, during the same week, Schultz joined with Democrats to defeat another bad bill for the environment. That bill would have crippled, probably killed, the wind energy industry in the state. Schultz’s vote for wind energy will create far more jobs for Wisconsin citizens than would have ever been created by the proposed open pit mine.
March 25, 2012
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Spencer Black was the representative for the 77th Assembly District in Madison for 26 years. He is the the author of the Stewardship Fund, the Mining Moratorium and the Recycling Law.