Cowles Not Yet On Board With Lifting Mining Moratorium

A source familiar with the situation tells Media Trackers that supporters of lifting Wisconsin’s mining moratorium are concerned that Republican State Senator Rob Cowles of the Green Bay area may not support the bill. Cowles tells Media Trackers he has not made a final decision but needs to know the bill will protect water quality before he can vote for it.

Republicans moved the bill out of the Committee on Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry last week on a party line 3-2 vote. Bill author, Senator Tom Tiffany and other supporters say sulfide mining can be done safely and lifting the moratorium would energize the Northern Wisconsin economy. Environmental opponents claim sulfide mining is inherently dangerous to bodies of water in the area.  While our source tells us that bill supporters fear Cowles is a no vote, he told Media Trackers that he is doing his due diligence and needs to do more studying before he makes up his mind, and he says there is plenty of time to do so before the bill would come up for a vote in the senate.

“As you probably know, there were six amendments to the bill last week. We’re going through that in the days and weeks ahead. There is a lot going on right now, but we will be going through this bill in detail. I’d always be concerned about: can they protect the water quality? I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position to take. The people of my district, generations had to deal with bad water in Northeastern Wisconsin. So I will be looking at it..from that set of eyes and working with as many experts as I can to answer that question.”

Cowles said some sulfide mines have caused water quality issues in the past. Opponents of lifting the moratorium say the Flambeau mine near Ladysmith created water issues while supporters of the bill say Flambeau had no serious issues and was operated and closed safely. And they point out that technological improvements in mining in the nearly two decades since the Flambeau mine close make the process even safer than it was then. They also point out the additional environmental protections have been passed into law in recent years that would not be removed by lifting the moratorium on sulfide mining. We asked Cowles if he thought the Flambeau mine was one that created water quality issues. He said “I don’t know the answer to that; there is a mixture of opinions on that.”

Our source told us that if Cowles opposes lifting the moratorium, he risks not only being out of step with his party but being closely  aligned with the far environmental left. “Rob runs the risk of appearing aligned with radical environmentalists if he votes no on this, especially with former Democratic State Senator Russ Decker expressing support for it.” Decker spoke in favor of lifting the moratorium at September 7 senate committee hearing on the bill in Ladysmith. He said much has changed since the Flambeau mine closed, successfully:

Since that time, which is nearly 20 years, technology has improved, mining companies have become more efficient and as a result more competitive. The economic growth is needed not only here, but throughout the state. We’ve all seen the loss of high paying manufacturing jobs in the paper mills or automotive industries…The economy and the environment ought not be at odds…

Meanwhile, opponents of  lifting the moratorium include Al Gedicks, who in his youth was convicted of attempting to firebomb a UW-Madison building during the Vietnam War (Gedicks didn’t take kindly to Media Trackers pointing this out). Our source says Cowles has a choice to make: “Rob will either vote to bring desperately needed economic growth to Northern Wisconsin, or he’ll cast a vote that will please extremists like Gedicks.”

And as for the amendments Cowles says he needs to study. As Wispolitics reported last week:

Those amendments, which were crafted with the help of former DNR secretary and current Wisconsin Wildlife Federation Executive Director George Meyer, also look to address other concerns Meyer raised during the public hearing on the bill last month.”


Meyer in a statement said those amendments establish ‘strong replacement financial assurances mechanisms’ into the long-term.”


“He also said the Wildlife Federation is ‘satisfied’ the amendments to the bill make it both ‘environmentally and scientifically sound,’ as well as ensure the underlying nonferrous mining law will ‘still remain a strong, environmentally protective law into the future.’”

Casting holdout votes on Republican initiatives is familiar territory for Cowles. He was the lone Republican senate no vote on the Foxconn incentives bill.  in September He also was the only Senate GOP no vote on the 2015-17 state budget, saying he opposed adding sweeping policy changes in the budget process. Cowles told Media Trackers that the bill’s author, State Senator Tom Tiffany had not, to Cowles knowledge, reached out to discuss the moratorium repeal bill with him.

Cowles stressed that there is time for him to research the issue and make an informed decision before the bill comes up for a vote, perhaps later this month.