MADISON, Wis. - A legislative committee approved a Republican bill Thursday that would close thousands of acres around a potential mine site in far northern Wisconsin, brushing aside concerns that the proposal is excessive.
Republicans who control the Senate mining committee approved the bill on a 3-2 party line vote. The committee's approval clears the way for a full vote in the Senate. GOP leaders in that house say the measure could come to the floor this month.
Gogebic Taconite wants to dig a 4 1/2-mile long iron mine in the Penokee Hills near Lake Superior. The project has become a flashpoint of controversy; supporters say it will create thousands of jobs for the region but opponents insist it will pollute the area's pristine water and wilderness. In June a band of protesters emerged from the woods around the site and accosted mine workers with profanities. One protester has been charged with stealing a geologist's camera.
The forest surrounding the site is part of the state's managed forest program, which grants land owners reduced fees in lieu of property taxes if they keep the land open for public recreation. The new bill would automatically close that land to the public until the state Department of Natural Resources decides whether to grant Gogebic Taconite a final mining permit and mining activity begins on the site.
The company would have to pay the state for closing the land but could reach agreements with the DNR to open up sections before the final permit decision comes down.
The bill's author, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who also serves as chairman of the mining committee, insisted the proposal is designed to protect mine workers and environmental regulators. He noted the protesters in June vowed to return.
"We would be fools not to act on those statements by violent protesters that we'll be back and we will be back with more people," Tiffany said. "My constituents understand this is a public safety issue."
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, railed against the bill, calling it a paranoid overreaction to a single incident involving a group of "buffoons" He complained the bill gives Gogebic Taconite too much authority over the land and punishes law-abiding nature lovers and hunters who have used the area for years.
"You don't close the freeway because some people are driving 85," Jauch said. "(The committee is) passing a piece of slop on to the Legislature."
Gogebic Taconite spokesman Bob Seitz told reporters after the vote the company wants to keep as much of the land open as possible. He questioned Jauch's logic, asking how many times Gogebic Taconite employees have to be attacked before action is justified.