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Wisconsin Assembly approves bill that clears way for controversial mine

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 8 Mar 2013 02:27 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Brendan O'Brien

March 7 (Reuters) - Wisconsin's Republican-controlled state Assembly approved a bill on Thursday that would clear the way for a possible ${esc.dollar}1.5 billion iron ore mine in the northwest corner of the state.

The Assembly voted 58-39 along party lines to approve the bill that would set a 420-day limit for the state Department of Natural Resources to approve or deny a permit for iron ore mining.

The legislation, which was narrowly passed by the Senate in February, heads to Republican Governor Scott Walker, who supports the bill.

"On behalf of the unemployed skilled workers in our state who will benefit from the thousands of mining-related jobs over the next few years, I say thank you for passing a way to streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining in Wisconsin," Walker said in a statement.

Supporters say the project will create jobs and help the economy, while opponents argue the mine will pollute the air, lakes, streams and groundwater.

"I do find it disappointing and perplexing that some lawmakers, whom Wisconsin's citizens entrust to promote their welfare and protect the environment, are the very same people who would push for this reckless legislation," Democratic Representative Leon Young said after the vote.

Mining company Gogebic Taconite wants to develop a ${esc.dollar}1.5 billion mine in portions of Iron and Ashland counties in northwestern Wisconsin.

The company has said the project could create 700 mining jobs, more than 3,000 construction jobs, and ${esc.dollar}604 million of total economic benefits annually.

During its first phase, the Gogebic mining site is expected to be about 5 miles long with a 1,500-acre open pit up to 1,000 feet deep, according to the state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau. It could reach 20 miles long in later phases, the agency said.

The mine, intended to extract the 2.2 billion tons of iron ore available in the area, would be one of the largest in North America, said Thomas Evans, assistant director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

Gogebic Taconite's parent company is the privately held Cline Resource and Development Group, which is owned by billionaire Christopher Cline.

The measure would reduce a mining company's environmental liability by removing irrevocable trust requirements, which require mining companies to set aside money to pay for future environmental issues that may arise such as contamination.

But it would retain requirements that a company carry 40 years of long-term care insurance and a bond to pay for reclamation of the mine site.

The bill also loosens restrictions on using nearby wetlands, lakes smaller than two acres and some streams for mining waste disposal.

Anne Sayers, program director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, has said the mining would pose a public health threat by emitting arsenic, lead and mercury, and would damage the groundwater supply, a source of drinking water for almost 70 percent of Wisconsin citizens.

Senators approved the bill with a 17-16 vote on Feb. 27. The bill failed last year when a Republican lawmaker refused to support the measure. (Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by David Bailey, Cynthia Johnston and Stacey Joyce)

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