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Wisconsin lifts copper mine limits, but no project imminent

The Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison, Wis. Vijay Kumar Koulampet - Own work (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Wisconsin state lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker are moving to end longstanding restrictions on copper, gold and silver mining in the state, but it doesn't appear that there's any imminent mining project on the horizon.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 39-14 Tuesday, on the last day of session for the year, to end the 1998 law that required a 10-year window of proof that similar mines had both operated and closed for a decade anywhere in North America without causing pollution before any new mine could start in Wisconsin.

No project was ever proposed during the so-called mining moratorium.

The Republican-controlled Assembly passed the same bill last week and Walker said this week that he'll sign the bill, even though he voted for the moratorium as a state lawmaker in 1998.

The bill also reduces mining company financial liability for environmental damage and loosens regulations on mineral sampling during exploration. Democrats and environmental groups say the 1998 law had worked well to protect the state's waterways from potentially toxic mine runoff from high-sulfur rock.

Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, said the old law did not prevent mining companies from coming to Wisconsin if they could prove their operation would not pollute the state's clean water.

"It really wasn't a mining ban or even a moratorium on mining. It was a precaution to say 'show us you can do it right,' " Bewley told the News Tribune. "But now that's gone. And we've laid Wisconsin bare to mining exploitation instead of protecting the natural resources that belong to Wisconsinites."

Mining supporters say the bill could help bolster northern Wisconsin's economy. The action in Madison could open the door for copper, gold, platinum and silver mines — all of which are found in higher-sulfur rock, often found in the same geologic deposits that are known to exist across parts of Wisconsin. The DNR's website notes extensive findings of copper, gold, silver, zinc and other metals found in higher-sulfide rock across many northern counties, several of them believed from past exploration to be in deposits large enough to support a mine.

"This necessary policy change will finally put the miner on the state flag back to work after two decades on the unemployment line," the Madison-based Natural Resource Development Association said in a statement Wednesday.

So far, however, there is no major copper, gold or other mining proposal in the Badger state that's been made public.

James Dick, director of communications for the Wisconsin DNR, told the News Tribune that as of Wednesday morning "no one has expressed interest to DNR about starting a mine in Wisconsin."

Bewley said it's likely any mining company interested in a Wisconsin project would knock on her door — her massive district covers much of the potential mining area of the state, including Barron, Washburn, Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland, Iron, Price and parts of Burnett, Polk and Vilas counties.

"There's been absolutely nothing that I'm aware of as far as an actual mining project or any new interest. There hasn't been a single inquiry to my office,'' Bewley said, adding that, if Wisconsin lawmakers want to help the state's northern regions prosper "they should give us broadband coverage. Fix our roads. Give us cellphone coverage. Fund our schools. ... No one has asked for a mine."

The so-called moratorium never did apply to iron ore mines that produce taconite, which usually comes from lower-sulfur rock. The proposed Gogebic Taconite iron ore mine once in the works for southern Ashland County sputtered and failed in 2015 when the company decided not spend $1.5 billion on the project during a global downturn in demand and price for iron ore and no clear domestic market for their product.

Michigan's Upper Peninsula currently has an operating copper-nickel mine, the Eagle Mine, in Marquette County. Meanwhile Toronto-based Aquila Resources last year received preliminary approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for mining and pollution discharge permits for the Back Forty Project gold mine near Stephenson in Menominee County, just across the Wisconsin border north of Green Bay.

Minnesotans are debating two copper-nickel-gold-platinum projects proposed for the state, including the PolyMet open pit mine near Babbitt which is advancing through the environmental permitting stage and the Twin Metals underground mine proposed near Ely which currently is on hold pending a U.S. Forest Service moratorium on new mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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