‘We are back to the time of … government by fiat,’ state senator says


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — As the Obama administration tightens the noose around the necks of coal, power plants and mining, one Wisconsin state senator is worried the next victim could be a proposed iron-ore mine just south of Lake Superior.

Gogebic Taconite is proposing building a $1.5-billion open pit mine in the Penokee hills In Iron and Ashland counties, near the small community of Mellen. An economic impact report projects the mine could create thousands of jobs in job-famished northern Wisconsin and beyond.

MINE LINE: State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, worries the Obama administration’s environmental agenda will next target an iron-ore mine proposed for job-hungry northern Wisconsin.

State Sen. Tom Tiffany, who shepherded a bill that streamlined state mining regulations that could pave the way for GTAC’s mine plan, said things appear to be on schedule.

But with the latest push by the Environmental Protection Agency to ratchet up carbon emissions standards and kill a proposed copper and gold mine in Alaska before a plan gets off the drawing table, Tiffany said he wonders if Wisconsin is the EPA’s next target.

“My greatest concern is that the Obama administration, just as it is going to kill coal, it is going to kill this mine,” the Hazelhurst Republican said.

“I think the proposal (Monday), with this war on coal by the Obama administration makes it really clear that they will bypass Congress at any time,” Tiffany added. “We are back to the time of kings and queens — government by fiat.”

The EPA on Monday released its draft rule that would regulate carbon emissions of the nation’s fossil fuel-fired power plants, the marrow of Obama’s “moral obligation” climate-change agenda.

Wisconsin would be forced to cut its carbon dioxide emissions generated from power plants by 34 percent by 2030.

“We have a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that’s not polluted or damaged,” the White House said in a statement, part of a media blitz Monday morning.

While the proposed CO2 rule, now up for public comment, doesn’t have much to do with the planned iron mine, Tiffany said it has everything to do with the Obama administration’s rush to regulate, expand government involvement and, ultimately, stifle development.

Exhibit A, according to Tiffany: The EPA’s move to pre-emptively kill a massive copper and gold mine proposal in southwest Alaska’s bush country. The mine also is projected to create thousands of good-paying jobs in a region that knows some of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

The EPA in February announced it would use its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to, the agency claims, protect delicate watersheds and salmon runs vital to the region’s economy, which is based largely on fishing. Such authority, rarely ever used, would kill the mine project before its developers, Pebble Limited Partnership, applies for federal and state permits.

PLP has asked a district court to stop the EPA.

“Here, nothing in Section 404 of the Act or elsewhere in the statute suggests that Congress intended for EPA to arrogate to itself an authority that essentially bans an activity—mining—before it is even proposed by an applicant,” the company’s lawsuit says.

Pebble has spent years and more than $500 million studying the Alaskan mine project, which could yield huge deposits of copper, gold and other precious metals. The company has continually pushed back permit application submissions.

The EPA eventually will be involved in the long regulatory process in play for the northern Wisconsin mine plan.

Larry Lynch, hydrogeologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the agency’s project manager on the Gogebic Taconite proposal, said the EPA does have the authority under the Clean Water Act to step in, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers generally is responsible for issuing Section 404 permits.

“Then the EPA usually signs off,” Lynch said. “It can conduct its own assessment. They have to specify what the environmental criteria is to establish the 404.”

The EPA did just that in Alaska. Critics have blasted the agency for conducting a Bristol Bay Watershed assessment that included theoretical assumptions based on what some peer reviewers described as flawed science. That assessment was used as ammunition to initiate the process to kill the Pebble Mine.

An EPA official told Wisconsin Reporter that Section 404 is situational, based on each application for a permit and judged by the Army Corps of Engineers. The official said the EPA could not comment on the Wisconsin mine proposal until it goes through the permit process for review.

Interesting. The Pebble Mine proposal, should the EPA leverage its Clean Water Act power, will not have the same luxury.

Lynch said Gogebic has begun collecting environmental baseline date required in a permit process that some experts say could take several years to complete. Once the data collection is wrapped up, the company could then submit its environmental impact statement to the DNR and then begin seeking the proper permits.

“The biggest concern to date is, we have a very conceptual project description right now. It would be nice to start getting more details on what project is going to look like,” Lynch said.

Gogebic Taconite spokesman Bob Seitz did not return Wisconsin Reporter’s call seeking comment. He has repeatedly failed to do so since the legislative fight over the mine bill in early 2013.

The process, Lynch said, mainly involves the DNR and the company at present, but the EPA and the Corps of Engineers will jump in when the permit-process moves forward.

To that end, GTAC has had some preliminary conversations with the federal agencies.

“We asked the EPA to become more involved in the process earlier,” Seitz told the Ashland Daily Press in August 2013. “We think that the process would move much more smoothly if all of the regulators were involved from the earliest part. So, we’d like to know everything the EPA would like to have us test for, what information they want us to find.”

William Thomas, a supervisor on the Iron County Board of Supervisors and a former mine worker, says he has seen the EPA force at least one mine out of business with its demands and mandates. As a supporter of “responsible mining,” Thomas said he’s hopeful the EPA won’t do the same in his county.

“Things are going to get more expensive,” he said of the EPA’s increasing incursion into development.

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org