David Koch's Americans for Prosperity (AFP) chapter in Wisconsin is throwing its support behind a proposed mine in the state's far North. A mining bill -- almost identical to the one that failed last year in the Wisconsin State Senate -- was reintroduced this week in the state legislature. What changed? Republicans picked up two more Senate seats in 2012, which may give mining supporters the slim margin they need.
SB 1/AB 1, commonly called the "Mining Reform Bill," is a renewed effort by supporters of a Florida-based mining company called Gogebic Taconite, or GTAC, to loosen environmental rules so the company can build an open-pit, iron ore mine in rural Northern Wisconsin. The mine is a top priority for Governor Scott Walker who is stung by continued reports placing Wisconsin at the bottom of the nation in terms of job creation. He featured the mine and a small group of miners in hard hats in his State of the Union address last week.
Curiously, the original bill was introduced last session without a sponsor, and it was later uncovered that GTAC itself had helped draft the legislation. This year's incarnation of the bill tracks the same legislative language as before and allows iron-ore mining companies to apply for state permits without permitting "the state of Wisconsin or citizens to challenge the information provided by the mining company in any of their documents," according to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. Essentially, this would allow GTAC and other mining companies to procure permits in short order without a thorough examination of the environmental impacts of their mines on water resources and communities around the state.
AFP Gathers Mine Supporters from Southeastern Wisconsin
The bill has sparked controversy and heated debate this year, just as it did last year, but with a few unlikely players throwing in their support. Americans for Prosperity, David Koch's Tea Party-affiliated astroturf group, organized buses to carry some thirty-odd supporters of the mine to the Capitol from Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Kenosha, Racine, Waukesha and Milwaukee. The group gathered in the Wisconsin State Capitol to get their talking points from Bill Williams, CEO of GTAC.
"We're in this room because this is part of the support," Williams told the Center for Media and Democracy. "This is the grassroots effort to push and open a mine up in Northern Wisconsin." Williams characterized the group of supporters, who donned orange "Vote Yes for Mining" hats as "every day citizens, as opposed to opposition from the elected elite, in some cases."
Williams failed to note that these "everyday citizens" live in Southeastern Wisconsin, the opposite end of the state from the proposed mine, and were shipped to the Capitol and given a free lunch by a multi-million dollar organization.
AFP states its interest in the mining bill stems from its goal of economic prosperity. "We want jobs in the state," said Communications Director of AFP-Wisconsin, David Fladeboe. "We want prosperity for everyone, and this bill will bring, or set into process to bring, thousands of jobs to Wisconsin and help improve the economy."
Fladeboe writes off the environmentalist opposition to the bill, by stating: "We've had mining in the state for one hundred years, and the environment up there coexists with the remnants of the old mining days. We still have clean water, we still have great wildlife... and we can have both economic prosperity and environmental protection at the same time." For a factsheet on the regulatory actions and high-dollar fines applied to iron-ore mines in the region, click here.
Environmentalists Counter AFP Narrative
Kerry Schumann, Executive Director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, disagrees. "Arsenic, mercury and lead are some of the toxic by-products of iron mining," said Schumann. "They could draw the water table down to the point where people who live nearby no longer have access to water and that would be perfectly legal under this law."
Schumann believes if the bill is passed, it will create a frightening precedent -- one that allows for an "incredibly destructive industry" to be exempt from meaningful environmental regulation, paving the way for other industries to do so as well. According to the League, which bused in citizens from the area surrounding the mine, the bill explicitly says groundwater contamination caused by mining is acceptable.
Mine Shaft: AFP Ally MacIver Creates Pro-Mining Flick
AFP is relying on an old ally to produce pro-mining propaganda. In the room where AFP activists convened, they were offered free copies of a "documentary" called Mine Shaft. The film was produced by the MacIver Institute, a Wisconsin-based think tank funded by the Bradley Foundation. In the run-up to Walker's 2012 recall election, MacIver partnered with AFP to run $2.9 million in thinly-veiled campaign ads claiming that Walker's draconian budget cuts were "working" to improve the economy (although Wisconsin's consistently terrible job creation numbers suggest otherwise).
The film features interviews with residents of Hurley, who report that even after countless decades of mining in the last century: "I don't see people walking around with three or four heads because of the pollution from the old mines," exclaims one person interviewed. The film paints a picture of the need for jobs in the region, but ultimately fails to provide balanced information about the hazards of loosening mining rules statewide.
Apparently, some AFP supporters found the film convincing. Phil Gohr got on the bus to Madison in part because of the film. "I'm for clean air and clean water," said Gohr, "but I think [the opposition] is setting up a false narrative. I don't want to speculate on what their agenda is, but there's definitely an agenda from the other side."
Shortly after speaking to CMD, Gohr picked up a free sandwich and prepared to head home to Mayville, Wisconsin, approximately 270 miles from the proposed mine.
Last Call: Citizen Cites Special Interest Money
Many Wisconsin residents who waited all day to testify against the mining bill were turned away late in the evening. One of the first to arrive and the last to testify was Oma Vic McMurray, who put a few hard facts into the record. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, between 2010 and 2012, the interests that support mining deregulation have contributed nearly $1 million to 20 members of the joint committee. The vast majority of those contributions -- about $825,000 -- were accepted by GOP legislators. Top takers of the campaign finance dollars were:
- Senator Alberta Darling (R) $467,293
- Senator Tom Tiffany (R) $74,915
- Rep. Tom Larson (R) $56,380
- Sen. Glenn Grothman (R) $52,439
- Sen. John Lehman (D) $43,838
- Rep. Fred Clark (D) $36,676
- Rep. Warren Petryk (R) $32,136
No further hearings on the mine are planned at this time.
CMD's Mary Bottari contributed to this article.