History and background
Before Wisconsin’s 'Prove It First' or Mining Moratorium Law was approved in 1997, the mining industry was challenged to give one example of a mine in metallic sulfides that had been safely operated and closed without polluting the environment. Mining and processing metals found together with sulfides causes acid mine drainage (AMD) when the sulfides are exposed to air and water causing acid production that leaches toxic metals in waters. To this day, the mining industry has not documented a single proven example.
Similarly, state regulators were tasked by the Natural Resources Board to search for examples and were unable to document successful metallic sulfide operations. Wisconsin DNR staff issued a report issued in 1995 that discussed the science proving the risks of acid mine drainage and stated: “There are no ideal metallic mineral mining sites which can be pointed to as the model approach in preventing acidic drainage industry-wide.” This conclusion by the state confirmed the industry’s failed environmental track record of mining metallic sulfide ores.
As a result, the Wisconsin State Legislature (including Rep. Scott Walker, when he served in the Assembly) approved the Mining Moratorium Law by overwhelming bi-partisan margins (29-3 in the Senate and 91-6 in the Assembly). Wisconsin’s Mining Moratorium was signed into law by Governor Thompson as 1997 Act 171.
The Moratorium Law established a condition that must be met before final permits to mine are granted. The law is already a compromise due to the DNR’s determination that two different mines could meet each 10-year requirement for operations and closure without causing pollution; this despite the clear intention of the law to require a single mine as an example. A recent survey of metallic sulfide regulation in the Great Lakes region by the National Wildlife Federation called Wisconsin's Mining Moratorium an exemplary law.
2017 Act 134 repealed the “Prove It First” law after the industry failed to demonstrate safe examples of metallic sulfide mining. The law did far more than repeal this important common sense measure. The new law endangers wetlands by removing far more comprehensive protections and replacing them with the minimums in state law that were designed for parking lots and strip malls, not for massively destructive mining. It fast-tracks permitting by removing the required contested case hearing before permit decisions are made and forces citizens to pay for challenging permits in court.
The law eliminated the prohibition on groundwater pumping over 100,000 gallons per day even if the pumping impacts wells or public waters like rivers, lakes, and streams. It allows destructive “bulk sampling” of up to 10,000 tons of ore without requiring an Environmental Analysis or Impact Statement. It repealed the Irrevocable Trust rule requiring funding for long-term contingencies for closed mines and replaced it with a limited substitute that could leave cleanup costs to taxpayers.
This law follows years of legislative attacks on our DNR’s budget and staffing which diminished the agency’s capacity to protect Wisconsin’s environment and people by design. Under Governor Walker, the state legislature consistently attacked these key portions of the state’s environmental protections.
What’s next? The WI DNR will release draft Administrative Rules for Act 134 later in 2019. Administrative rules must be drafted and released for public hearings and input which gives us a chance to influence how the law is interpreted and applied. We will need your help to make sure the law does not erode protections even more than it already has.
The Wisconsin Chapter fought hard to defeat Act 134 during legislative hearings. We produced a number of briefings and papers to support the opposition:
A Briefing Paper on Why Wisconsin’s Mining Moratorium Law Should Be Preserved produced by the Sierra Club and the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council.