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Compromise on access to Gogebic Taconite mine site in the works; support unclear

A bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators is crafting an alternative to barring the public from 3,500 acres of managed forest land around a controversial possible Gogebic Taconite mine site in Ashland and Iron counties.

Gogebic mine
The Gogebic Taconite mine and processing plant, which would produce 8 million tons of finished taconite pellets annually, would be located near Mellen, Wis., shown here. (2011 file / News Tribune)

A bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators is crafting an alternative to barring the public from 3,500 acres of managed forest land around a controversial possible Gogebic Taconite mine site in Ashland and Iron counties.

Sens. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center; Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay; Bob Jauch, D-Poplar; and Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, are working on a proposal that would create a 300-foot perimeter around mine-related activities and a 50-foot buffer along an access road.

The proposal could be introduced as early as this week, Schultz said. The 300-foot buffer was previously proposed by Jauch, but rejected by the mining company.

"We think this is going to leave people with a good taste in their mouth, rather than a bad one," Schultz said. "It treats everybody fairly and it puts the Department of Natural Resources in control rather than a company."

Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, also is working on changes to his original proposal, which would have halted public access to the area while Gogebic Taconite tests the possibility of building a large open-pit iron-ore mine.

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The bill also would have allowed the landowners who are working with Gogebic to temporarily avoid paying nearly $900,000 in back taxes should the land be removed from the state's managed forest land program, according to a DNR analysis.

Tiffany says the compromise plan he is working on would allow public access during gun deer season, and provide a 50-foot buffer zone along class one and class two trout streams.

"I certainly want to make sure sportsmen have as much access as possible," he said.

Tiffany said the problem with the bipartisan proposal, which he referred to as the "circles bill," is that mobile workers who move between different parts of the site would not be protected.

"I hope we can pursue some middle ground," Tiffany said. "The circles bill does not protect those mobile employees."

Gogebic spokesman Bob Seitz raised the same concern about the bipartisan proposal, calling it "unworkable."

Tiffany's bill appeared to be on the fast track when it was introduced in late August and approved by a Senate committee less than a week later. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, initially said it would be on the Senate calendar last week, but it was not included for debate.

"The bill was not scheduled because the votes were not there to pass the bill," Fitzgerald chief of staff Dan Romportl said. "A few senators had concerns with some of the language contained within the current version of the bill, and Sen. Tiffany is continuing to work with those senators to reach a compromise that everyone is comfortable with."

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Republicans hold an 18-15 majority in the Senate, so the opposition of all Democrats, Schultz and Cowles was enough to force changes. Romportl said he was aware of several senators looking for changes, but declined to name them.

Tiffany said he introduced the proposal to protect worker safety in response to a June 11 incident when masked protesters vandalized equipment at the mine site and harassed mine employees. One woman was charged with felony robbery.

He added that his proposal was not about tax breaks for the company or the landowners.

"The public has very much gotten a misperception that this is a tax giveaway to the mining company," Tiffany said. "That is absolutely not true."

He said the company won't get out of any taxes by changing its status from open to closed managed forest land. And he said the landowners would owe even more taxes if it were to withdraw the land altogether.

The state's managed forest land program allows landowners to pay lower taxes on property that they maintain for public access for periods of 25 or 50 years. Owners can close only up to 160 acres of managed forest land per municipality. Tiffany's bill would allow all 3,520 acres around the mine site to be closed, but remain in the program.

The other option for Gogebic would be to have the land removed from the program, which would require them to pay back taxes and penalties totaling an estimated $891,871. Under Tiffany's bill, that bill wouldn't come due until the company removes the land from the program to mine, which won't be for a few more years.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENTMINING
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