Wisconsin Governor Tries To Rejuvenate State's Mining Industry Amid Protest

Plagued by a stagnant economy, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is pushing a rewrite of his state's mining laws to clear the way for a massive open pit iron mine. Backers hope the project could rejuvenate an industry that helped build Wisconsin, although it's been mostly dormant for more than 50 years. But the proposal's sweeping changes to environmental protections have met fierce opposition in a state that also prides itself on its history of protecting the earth.

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The state of Wisconsin is locked in an emotional fight over mining. Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, is pushing a bill that would clear the way for one of the world's largest open pit iron mines. Supporters hope the project will rejuvenate an industry that helped to build Wisconsin. But the proposal has fierce opposition, as we hear from Shawn Johnson of Wisconsin Public Radio.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: The way they're fighting over this rock in the Penokee Hills near Lake Superior, you'd be forgiven if you thought it was just discovered or it was about to disappear. But that's not the case. People have known about the massive iron formation here for a long time. It's more than a billion years old and it's not going anywhere, at least not without a lot of help.

What's new is that a Florida-based mining company says it wants to go after this iron and there's a business-friendly governor and state legislature that want to help them do it. So suddenly, a Northwoods resident like Pete Rasmussen - who's a carpenter and photographer by trade - is spending his spare time teaching people about geology and fighting a mine that would be miles from his home.

PETE RASMUSSEN: So this first phase, they're talking about four miles here at eight million tons a year. By phase two, they're talking 16 million tons a year.

JOHNSON: Armed with maps and the cutaway diagrams, Rasmussen wants people to see the beauty of these hills so they know what would be lost. Hundreds of miles to the south in Madison, Governor Scott Walker is also using visual aids to make his point.

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JOHNSON: In a speech to the state legislature, he surrounded himself with workers wearing hard hats. They carried a state flag which features a seal honoring workers who built Wisconsin.

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER REPUBLICAN, WISCONSIN: As you can see, on the right-hand side is the image of a miner. In the upper right-hand corner of the shield are the tools of a miner.

JOHNSON: Walker wants people to see this mining legislation as a return to Wisconsin's mining heyday and the jobs that come with it.

Without a doubt iron mining left its mark on northern Wisconsin before its boom economy went bust. Wayne Nasi lives in Iron County. At a recent town hall meeting, he waxed nostalgic for the days when his dad and grandpa worked the mines.

WAYNE NASI: My mom stayed at home. My dad worked hard. We have 100 percent health insurance. They built the clinic in town for us. It was the best of times we ever could have here.

JOHNSON: Bud Benter also lives in Iron County but much closer to where this mine would be. His tiny town of Anderson, Wisconsin has hired a lawyer to try to protect its interests. Benter says this wouldn't be your grandfather's mine.

BUD BENTER: It'll never ever, ever be the same. This is not the day of the hole in the ground where they went to work with the pick and a shovel and light on their head.

JOHNSON: Indeed, during the century when in iron mining industry was born, thrived and died in northern Wisconsin, the iron they're fighting over today was passed over. Miners dug shafts to get all the most accessible ore. This is the stuff that's left over. Its still there because it's buried deep enough that you'd have to dig a huge pit to extract it.

The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation's George Meyer says it could be a thousand feet deep, three-quarters of a mile wide and eventually 22 miles long.

GEORGE MEYER: The astronauts will be able to see this when they fly over. I mean, it's going to be that size.

JOHNSON: A mining company would have to blast, crush and literally pulverize the earth, and then use huge magnets to separate the iron dust from the waste. Millions of tons of waste rock would have to go somewhere. Meyer, who for years ran the state agency that would regulate this mine, says that creates a problem.

MEYER: This is an extremely pristine watershed, probably the best remaining watersheds in the state of Wisconsin. So it's a very sensitive area.

JOHNSON: Right now, it's illegal for a mining company to jump waste rock on wetlands, lakes or streams. The mining bill, written with the help of the mining company GTac, would change that.

Polls show the public remains skeptical. After all, Wisconsin is the home of Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson and Sierra Club founder John Muir. Native American tribes are also weary. Mike Wiggins heads the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

MIKE WIGGINS: Because we're directly downstream and set to endure the impacts of this project, we view it as an imminent threat. The imminent threat really manifests itself as a form of genocide.

JOHNSON: The legislation could pass the State Senate this week. But if it becomes law, Wiggins and environmentalists have promised to sue to try to block the mine. It means this fight will likely continue, as a state that struggling for footing in the economy this century looks toward an industry and embraced in the last.

For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.

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