Keep Wisconsin’s “prove-it-first” mining law
Aug 31, 2017
A bill authored by state Senator Tom Tiffany and Representative Rob Hutton (SB 395/AB499) was heard before the state Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry on September 7th and could roll back Wisconsin’s long-standing “prove-it-first” sulfide mining law. Midwest Environmental Advocates Staff Attorney James Parra was there to testify about problems with the proposed changes. Read Parra's testimony.
Here is what you need to know about the biggest changes the bill would make to our law:
SB 395 repeals the “prove-it first” sulfide mining law. The prove-it-first law was a common sense environmental protection enacted in 1997 that required a mining company to actually show, not just say, that sulfide mining for metals and minerals can be done safely. The law requires a mining applicant to show that there is a single mine anywhere in the United States or Canada that has operated for 10 years and a single mine that has been closed for 10 years without causing environmental pollution.
The impacts of mining are typically much more significant than mining companies predict. In fact, research has demonstrated that regulators and mining companies vastly underestimate the potential for mining projects to pollute the environment. For example, a 2006 study that examined “the reliability of pre-mining water quality predictions…in the United States” found that a majority of the mines studied caused pollution in surface and ground waters despite regulators often predicting that the potential for pollution was low. Perhaps most disturbingly, 90% of the mines for which regulators had predicted a low potential for acid mine drainage did in fact develop acid mine drainage (See “Comparison of Predicted and Actual Water Quality at Hardrock Mines” ES-9).
SB 395 exempts parts of the mining process from important environmental protections. Bulk Sampling involves the removal of up to 10,000 tons of earth and exposes rock to rain and air which causes sulfuric acid and pollution. This sampling would be exempt from groundwater protections. The bill also severely restricts the DNR’s ability to enforce violations of those requirements that remain. SB 395 does this by eliminating DNR’s authority to issue orders to a person to require compliance with bulk sampling requirements.
SB 395 removes protections for public and private water supplies from overpumping and depletion. The mining industry uses a lot of water and pumps a lot of water out of a mine site. Under current law, the DNR may not issue a pumping permit to a mining company if the pumping would “result in the unreasonable detriment of public or private water supplies or the unreasonable detriment of public rights in the waters of the state. “ The bill would require DNR to issue the permit, even if the pumping would deplete water supplies and destroy public resources, so long as the mining company provides a “replacement water supply of similar quality.”
SB 395 eliminates financial obligations for the mine that were designed to ensure there would be money to address any long term problems at a mining site. Because sulfide mines have the potential to create dangerous pollution for hundreds of years after they are closed, DNR currently has the authority to require a mining company to put funds into an irrevocable trust that could last in perpetuity. This bill prohibits DNR from implementing this requirement, and limits a mining company’s financial responsibilities to about 40 years after closure of the mine.
Authors of SB 395 want it both ways: to say mining is safe while at the same time lifting the rules that keep polluting mines from setting up shop in Wisconsin. Senator Tiffany repeatedly says that mining is safe both in the short and long term and we don’t need as many environmental protections or long-term financial assurances. Yet, at the same time he is trying to repeal the prove-it-first law because there is not a single mine in the United States or Canada that has operated or been closed for at least 10 years without causing pollution.
If mining is safe, Wisconsin’s prove-it-first law shouldn’t be a problem. But Wisconsin’s law is only a problem for multinational mining corporations seeking profit in our state without having to follow the rules that put the health of our water and our environment first.