By Wendy Thiede*
MELLEN, Wis. -- For the first time since this debate began a year ago, the people of Mellen had the chance to express their views on the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine and Assembly Bill 426. Approximately 150 people attended a hearing on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012, called by Senator Bob Jauch (Poplar) and Senator Dayle Schulz (R-Richland Center) at the Mellen School.
Also on the panel of legislators were Senator Tim Cullen (D-Janesville), Senator Jim Holperin (D-Conover), and Representative Janet Bewley (D-Ashland). Senator Jauch spoke for the group when he said it was about time we came to Mellen, the heart of the proposed mine area.
Unlike at previous hearings in Hurley and Madison, speakers were not screened and not given a time limit. Instead, each approached the microphone unannounced and presented their impromptu, heart-felt views on the mining legislation AB426 and how they perceived it would affect them. Most of the speakers reside between one and 15 miles from the mine site.
After a welcome by City Council President Pete Russo, the listening session was kicked off by Joe Barabe, Mayor of Mellen for 24 years. Although he is in favor of a mine coming to the area, he emphatically stated that if AB426 passed, he would essentially be handing over the keys of Mellen to Gogebic Taconite.
"Make no mistake, I am pro-mine, pro-people, but not this mine under these conditions."
That was the prevailing sentiment in almost all of the succeeding comments. Yes, people of the area want and need jobs, but they are not willing to sacrifice their clean water, pristine surroundings, and small town safety. Even the 5th graders, when asked by their teacher Melinda Colver, said they want things to stay the way they are, even if it means no McDonald’s. Connie, whose family has lived here since 1880, asked what will we leave our children, the biggest pit in the world or the cleanest watershed? Paul, a relative newcomer to the area from Chicago, said that maybe our children will leave to find work, but we should at least give them a place to come home to. Several people said that even though they had been here all their lives, they would leave if this mine were operated under AB426.
Because of the Assembly Bill 426, a feeling of distrust has surfaced even among mine supporters. People are looking for facts which they are not getting from the mining company or their government. If they knew the plan, they could address the issues, ask the right questions, and make intelligent decisions. Citizens commented that AB426 protects the mining company from environmental regulations and that if the mine could be operated safely, they wouldn’t be asking for these changes. Senator Jauch addressed the issue of trust, saying that there is frustration with the way the bill was rushed and the public manipulated to look only at the economic impact. He referenced a speaker from the Platteville hearing who said legislators should write a law as if they lived 1500 feet from the mine.
Although a handful of citizens spoke out against the mine and a few spoke for it, the majority expressed the same view as that of Mayor Barabe. They are in favor of mining returning to the area but not in favor of this bill which jeopardizes the quality of the environment. Several people advised the senators to slow down. Don’t rush into these changes; go to Hibbing to see what it’s like; encourage all legislators to visit the area up here before voting; consult scientists.
The words of the 9th-grade boy said it best: "What do we have to gain from this mine?"
When everyone who wished to had spoken, the legislators answered some of the questions and summed up the comments. Senator Jauch said what he heard was that we must not weaken our environmental standards, that mining under current law is legal, and that GTac, after receiving their drilling permit, has chosen of their own will to halt operations and to hold the people of Wisconsin hostage in order to get the laws changed in their favor. The Wisconsin Way Mining Bill, authored by Senators Jauch and Schultz, presents a compromise that balances the economic needs of the mining company with the environmental needs of the people of Wisconsin.
Senator Cullen’s conclusion was that there is a lot of common sense up here, and he won’t vote for AB426. When the state campaigns to attract jobs, those manufacturing jobs are different from jobs requiring mountain top removal and should therefore be subject to different tests.
Senator Holperin said the moving, articulate comments expressed in about an hour today conveyed a consistent message that was more impactful than the 10-hour hearings in Madison. That message was that if the Penokee Hills cannot be mined without sacrificing the environment, then the mine shouldn’t be permitted.
Senator Schulz said he learned that this community prizes its environment over jobs. He will take the spirit of citizenship shown here back to Madison to find common ground in the Senate. He does not support AB426 as it does not treat the people up here fairly. Although he feels we must have a growing economy, if we do not have a safe environment, there will be no reason for more jobs. This week he will be looking for answers about why the specific changes in the law were requested by the mining company. And finally, he believes we can achieve both an economy that allows people to earn a living and one that appreciates the environment.
Representative Bewley said it was a privilege to represent the people of this area and she appreciates the demonstration of respect shown for different opinions on this very complex issue. What is our economy if not our environment?
The Assembly Bill 426 will be discussed in the Joint Finance Committee next week while the Wisconsin Way compromise bill will be introduced in the Senate.
Wisconsin Eye filmed this event. Visit their Web site at http://www.wiseye.org.
*Editor's Note: Guest writer Wendy Thiede is a resident of Iron County, Wis.