Penokee Hills Iron Mine Hearing Draws Dozens In Wisconsin

02/17/2012 01:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Opponents of a proposed iron mine in northwestern Wisconsin seized what might be their last official chance to sound off on a contentious bill to jumpstart the project Friday, jamming a public hearing on the measure before the Legislature's powerful budget committee.

Tensions were high. Legislative aides roped off seating sections to keep the crowd away from committee members' dais and police ringed the room. Spectators held up signs that read, "stop plundering Wisconsin," ''stop the mine" and "AB 426 Sux," a reference to the bill's number.

The measure's authors, Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Sen. Pam Galloway, R-Wausau, plunged ahead undaunted, telling committee members the mine would provide an economic boom for the entire state.

"What you have in front of you is a 21st century mining bill," Tiffany said. "It honors Wisconsin's high environmental standards."

The crowd snickered.

A Florida company called Gogebic Taconite wants to dig a huge open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. Company officials have promised the project will create hundreds of jobs for economically depressed northern Wisconsin but they've put their plans on hold until lawmakers can guarantee a stopping point in the state's open-ended mining permits.

Eager to deliver on job creation campaign promises, Republicans have been working for most of the last year to develop legislation for Gogebic Taconite. In the meantime, conservationists have rallied against the project, warning it would pollute one of the most beautiful natural areas in the state. Now lawmakers and environmentalists are locked in one of the most intense debates over how to balance business and the environment that Wisconsin has seen in years.

Assembly Republicans passed a bill in January that would require a permitting decision within a year, eliminate contested case hearings and cap application fees at $2 million.

The measure is now in the state Senate, but its chances there look murky. Republicans hold a 17-16 Senate majority but Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican from Richland Center, has said he can't support the measure. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has forwarded the bill to the budget committee anyway.

Time is running out for lawmakers; the legislative session ends next month and Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams has hinted that the company might pull up stakes if permit changes don't solidify by then.

The panel's co-chairman, Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said he would allow uninvited speakers to talk for two minutes, saying he planned to end the hearing at 5 p.m.

Democrats on the committee complained that the panel should listen until everyone has had a chance to speak. At a news conference before the hearing Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, a committee member whose district would include the mine, accused Vos of treating the public like pawns.

Republicans have already held two public hearings on the bill, one in Milwaukee and one in Hurley, near the mine site.