By Terry Daulton
Over 70 area residents filled the Oma Town Hall on the evening of June 27th to hear George Meyer speak on the importance of protecting local property rights and taxpayers through metallic mining zoning. George Meyer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation since 2003, has had leadership roles in four Wisconsin mining projects: Ladysmith's Flambeau Mine, Oneida County's Lynne Mine, the Crandon Mine, and the Jackson County Iron Mine. He spent twenty years in senior management in WDNR, including as the DNR Secretary from 1993 to 2001. A lawyer by training, he is an expert on the public trust doctrine and water law, and has taught environmental policy at Lawrence University
Thursday's meeting was sponsored by the Iron County Citizen's Forum to help Iron County residents prepare for the public hearing on a draft metallic mining amendment to the county zoning ordinance. At the program, Iron County Zoning Administrator, Tom Berman, emphasized the importance of citizens' input at the public hearing on July 1 at 6 pm at the Memorial Building in Hurley.
Meyer began by distinguishing between the responsibilities of a mining company and those of local governments. "Mining companies are primarily responsible to their stockholders." He expressed his certainty that Gogebic Taconite's staff intend to do the best possible job. However, his experiences suggest that employees come and go, and companies often change hands during the life of a mine, invalidating handshake agreements. He cited the Crandon mine project as an example which involved four different mining companies. If the Penokee project moves forward, the mine will likely be active for many years, creating a permanent land use change far into the future. "Trust but verify," Meyer said. "You need to have legally enforceable documents and accessible financial assurances."
On the other hand, local governments are responsible to protect the property rights of citizens and to protect taxpayers from shouldering short and long term costs of a mine. Such costs include roads, emergency services and long term responsibility for the reclaimed waste disposal site. "Iron County would be the landowner of at least 3,331 acres of permanently impacted lands that would require monitoring and potentially could pose liability costs." Meyer stated that both operators of mines and landowners can be held responsible for environmental impacts should state or federal agencies require clean up or maintenance of the site.
"This is a major permanent land use change, probably the largest Iron County will ever see," Meyer stated. He described the three tools Iron County has to protect citizens' rights: the county forest lease agreement, local impact agreements (between the mining company and county), and zoning. Strong zoning gives the county a tool to bring to the table for negotiation with the company. Zoning also provides the company with a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Then, if ownership, management , or economics change, local communities are protected.
When asked why zoning is needed when there are state and federal regulations, Meyer explained that not all impacts are covered under the existing laws. For example, state and federal laws do not regulate sound, hours of blasting, earth movements, shock and vibrations, cracks in structures, smells, odors, dust, loss of local property values, light pollution, and adverse effects on other businesses to name a few .
In addition, Meyer discussed the justification for the proposed escrow account to cover financial burdens the county would have to absorb should a mining project be initiated. For example, expenses would increase for additional staffing for zoning, administration, roads, emergency services, police and legal advice. In addition, the county needs protection from potential liability with legal documents and financial assurances supported by escrow, bonding or insurance. For example, he said, "if the mining company goes bankrupt in 25 years and Highway 77 needs to be repaired, the county and state should have funding available to cover the wear and tear on infrastructure caused by the mine, but if the company is gone, the citizens would end up paying the bills."
Meyer compared the recently passed Ashland County metallic mining ordinance to Iron County's draft revision. The Ashland ordinance has been under development for some months and is more comprehensive, covering many of the areas not regulated by state or federal agencies, including a requirement that a mining company enter into local impact agreements. He applauded the Iron County Zoning Committee and the Department's efforts, and suggested Iron County consider adding some of the language in the Ashland ordinance. Since Ashland County is a downstream neighbor Meyer feels it is important to work together. While Iron County is not required to consider impacts outside its borders, adopting similar ordinances to those of Ashland would make regulations more clear and consistent.
In a recent Daily Globe article, GTac spokesman Bob Seitz criticized the Iron County draft for having vague language, and Meyer agreed that more details need to be added. However, he suggested that it is important for Iron County to get something on the books to give the mining company notice that local regulations will be enacted. Then the county can refine and improve the ordinance over the next few months. Although concerns have been raised that GTac's recent filing of its pre-application notification might preempt local government's power to enact local regulations, Meyer does not believe that this would be the case. He stated several times that a basic local ordinance should be passed as soon as possible to prevent needless legal complications.
He also talked briefly about the value of local impact agreements. Under the new state mining law, companies may enter into local agreements to address community concerns such as setbacks, security fencing, construction inspection, waste types, hours of operation, trucking restrictions, hiring of local employees, emergency equipment, and professional expenses to the county and liability. He said that in Ladysmith, the local agreements were very helpful to the community and that the mining company was good to work with. When asked whether the Iron County zoning ordinance should contain a requirement for a mining company to enter into local agreements to address site specific concerns, he said that it would be a good idea as the new mining bill only stated that a company "may" enter into a local agreement.. Further, he said, "You're not going to get a good impact agreement unless you have a solid ordinance."
While his talk focused on zoning, Meyer did share a few comments on the environmental sensitivities of the Penokee Hills and the Bad River Watershed. He said that the Bad River is the highest quality river system in the state and that the current mine proposal is much larger and more complex than any mine in the state. He said that the hydrology study and the rock characterizations will be critical to determining whether this project is environmentally sound.
Following Meyer's presentation, Senator Bob Jauch, (District 25), assured the audience that local zoning ordinances will not be overridden in Madison. "The one thing you have left is the ability to establish local zoning ordinances . . . that protect the public interest," he said. Also in attendance were Senator Tom Tiffany (District 12), four Iron County board members, the chairwoman of the Iron County Mining Impact Committee, two additional Iron County Mining Impact Committee members and the Iron County clerk.
The program lasted more than two hours. Though many audience members submitted questions, due to time constraints only those specifically related to zoning were answered. Additional questions ranging from environmental and economic issues to the mining legislation, local agreements, and the county forest lease will be addressed at future Iron County Citizens Forum meetings.
The purpose of the Iron County Citizen's Forum is to provide Iron County citizens with a venue for learning, discussion and participation relating to activities and events that affect Iron County residents in a significant way, with a special emphasis on natural and cultural resources and sustainable development. The group is non-political and the programs are free and open to the public.