Tag Archives: Gogebic Taconite

Walker eased lead rules after soliciting money from lead paint producer

A leading lead manufacturer was among a host of corporate leaders who donated to a conservative group that helped Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators fend off recall challenges.

The Guardian, a British newspaper, obtained 1,500 pages of leaked documents from a secret investigation into whether Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside conservative groups. That investigation was halted in 2015 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court under a ruling by right-wing justices who received millions of dollars in donations from the same outside groups that were charged in the case.

The documents show Walker was interested in getting Harold Simmons, the billionaire owner of NL Industries, which was a major producer of lead that was used in paint before such practices were banned, to donate to the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth. That group, backed by the Koch brothers, worked in coordination with Walker’s campaign to fight a 2012 attempt to recall the governor. Simmons gave the group $750,000 in 2011 and 2012, at the height of recall efforts.

After Simmons’ donations, the Wisconsin Legislature’s finance committee tucked language into the 2013–15 state budget granting immunity to lead manufacturers from lead paint poisoning lawsuits. Staff members for three Republicans on that committee who were recalled in 2011 didn’t immediately respond to email messages inquiring about whether the immunity was in return for the Club for Growth donations.

Walker and the state’s majority Republican legislators also used the state budget to loosen the regulation of lead paint. In addition to the producers of lead paint, the real estate and construction industries strongly oppose any regulation on lead, despite its potential deadliness. Like NL Industries, construction and real-estate companies are major donors to Walker and Wisconsin Republicans.

On July 23, 2015, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign issued a press statement shedding light on the great length that Walker and the GOP went to protect manufacturers of lead paint. A last-minute budget amendment by GOP legislators changed the legal definition of lead paint “to increase the amount of lead that must be in liquid or dry paint before state regulations kick in,” according to WDC.

The amendment also prevented state administrative rules from being updated to reflect any future statutory definition of lead paint that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might enact to protect public health.

Lead paint is toxic. It can cause a range of health problems, especially in young children, when it’s absorbed into the body. It causes damage to the brain, kidneys, nerves and blood. Lead may also cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures and even death.

Corrosion of lead pipes damages water supplies. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recently urged everyone living in a home built before 1951 — about 700,000 city residences — to get a filter capable of removing the toxin from water.

The documents leaked by The Guardian also showed that Walker and his fundraisers solicited money for the Wisconsin Club for Growth from hedge-fund billionaire Stephen Cohen, who gave the club $1 million; Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who gave $25,000; and hedge-fund manager and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research Chairman Paul Singer, who gave $250,000.

Such donations are legal under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which said restrictions on corporations’ political spending were unconstitutional.

Prosecutors had alleged Walker and his fundraising team asked potential contributors to donate to Wisconsin Club for Growth and other groups so they could run ads supporting him in the recalls. But the right-wing majority on the state’s high court said Walker had done nothing illegal, because coordination between candidates and outside groups on so-called issue advertising — ads that don’t expressly call for a candidate’s election or defeat — is permissible.

The justices, however, did not say that campaigns and outside groups could coordinate fundraising activities. Prosecutors have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let them re-start the investigation, and justices will consider that request on Sept. 26.

Walker campaign spokesman Joe Fadness issued a statement Wednesday calling the investigation “baseless.”

Club For Growth attorney David Rivkin said in an email that prosecutors made up crimes that don’t exist and called their appeal “legally frivolous and just another publicity stunt intended to tarnish their targets’ reputations and salvage their own.”

Previously released documents show iron mining company Gogebic Taconite gave the club $700,000. Walker later signed a bill easing regulations to help clear the path for the company’s mine near Lake Superior. The company ultimately gave up plans for the mine, however.

Minority Democrats said during a news conference that the documents raise more questions about what other legislation Republicans may have passed in exchange for donations to outside groups.

‘It appears we have more payback than policy,” Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire said.

Spokeswomen for Republican Senate and Assembly leaders didn’t immediately respond to email messages.

 

57 workers in Department of Natural Resources get layoff notices on Earth Day

On April 22, Earth Day, 57 workers with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, including many scientists, were notified they may lose their jobs under cuts proposed by Gov. Scott Walker.

The Earth Day holiday, begun by former Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson, was not noted on Walker’s official or presidential campaign websites or social media.

Walker’s two-year spending plan would cut 66 positions across DNR, including just over 18 in the Bureau of Scientific Services. DNR spokesman Bill Cosh  said all 27 people in that bureau had to receive potential lay-off notices, even though not all of them may lose their job.

But, speaking on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Week in Review this morning, former state attorney general Peg Lautenschlager said the threats alone send a message that will make it hard for the DNR to recruit talented science professionals, harming the future management of Wisconsin’ natural resources.

The DNR and its scientists manage the state’s deer herd and fishing rights. They evaluate prospective mines and other potentially pollution-producing projects for environmental impact. They oversee the use of state land and maintain natural habitats and biodiversity.

The DNR ran afoul of Walker, however, when it insisted on studying rather than green-lighting a proposed open pit iron ore mine to be located in the pristine Penokee Hills region. Gogebic Taconite, the company that wanted to build the mine, gave Wisconsin Republicans $700,000 during Walker’s 2010 campaign, and the governor rewrote mining regulations to accommodate the company’s proposal shortly after taking office.

But the DNR held up the project and Gogebic Taconite eventually withdrew its proposal, saying it could not operate the mine safely in such an environmentally sensitive area.

Walker’s proposed cuts in that bureau have been criticized by Democrats, environmentalists and others who fear the loss of scientific expertise will hurt decision-making and increase the role of politics in environmental decision-making.

Walker wanted mining lobbyist to head Department of Natural Resources

Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s staff considered making a lobbyist for a company seeking to dig an iron mine in Wisconsin the state Department of Natural Resources’ deputy secretary, according to a newspaper report.

Gogebic Taconite lobbyist Bob Seitz was considered to replace outgoing DNR Deputy Secretary Matt Maroney earlier this year, according to public records obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Gogebic Taconite planned to dig a 41/2-mile-long fracking mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. Republicans who control the Legislature passed a bill relaxing the state’s mining regulations in an effort to jumpstart the project, drawing intense criticism from environmentalists who feared the mine would pollute the pristine region. Gogebic Taconite also gave $700,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative group that helped Walker and Republican lawmakers survive recall elections in 2011 and 2012.

The DNR would have been the agency to approve Gogebic Taconite’s state mining permits. The company pulled out of the state in February, however, saying the project wasn’t feasible.

The newspaper reported that emails and other documents obtained through Wisconsin’s open records law confirmed that Walker’s administration was considering hiring Seitz to replace DNR Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney, who moved to a senior advisory position in Walker’s office in late February.

The administration ultimately gave Seitz a job as an assistant to state Public Service Commissioner Ellen Nowak in mid-February. The DNR deputy secretary job was given to Kurt Thiede, that agency’s land division administrator, last month.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email to The Associated Press that staffers dropped Seitz from consideration for the DNR post after learning a federal law prohibits people who have worked for a company that is applying for or has obtained air or water permits from working within the agency that issues such permits for two years.

Seitz didn’t immediately return a voicemail message. 

Sierra Club urges Wisconsin lawmakers to repeal Gogebic mining law

The Sierra Club on March 30 renewed its call for the Wisconsin Legislature to repeal 2013 Act 1, the measure written by Gogebic Taconite to enable its now-abandoned proposal. The measure gutted environmental protections to ease the way for the project.

The Sierra Club in a statement issued on March 30 said the measure should be repealed in its entirety.

Said the environmental advocacy group: the iron mining law is based on the scientific falsehood that iron mining cannot cause acid mine drainage caused by the presence of sulfide minerals. Numerous independent geologic studies have proven that there are significant quantities of sulfide minerals in the Penokees at the proposed Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine site. This fact proves that the reductions of environmental protections along with severe limits on the public’s right to participate and challenge permits were unjustified.    

“GTac has abandoned its proposal after demanding certainty in permitting that only this law could give it. That fact gives the Legislature a rare opportunity to fix the huge mistake it made when it approved such damaging legislation based on false information. GTac lied to the public and the legislature to get its way and made a lot of promises it couldn’t keep.  Let’s fix this law now before the next fly-by-night company shows up,” said Dave Blouin, Sierra Club John Muir Chapter mining committee chair.

The ferrous mining law was overwhelming opposed at each public hearing held by the state. And more than 75 statewide, local and national conservation and environmental organizations — the Sierra Club, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, Trout Unlimited, the Wisconsin Association of Lakes, the Izaak Walton League of Wisconsin, the River Alliance of Wisconsin, the Penokee Hills Education Project, the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin, Clean Wisconsin, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council — opposed the legislation.

Polling showed a majority of state residents opposed the law, which established broad and comprehensive reductions in environmental protections and citizen involvement to enable the mining proposal. The law, for example, established that the destruction of wetlands through mining and for dumping wastes into, was presumed necessary.

The law also reduced protections for lakes, streams, groundwater and air.

Iron mine is halted, but battle scars remain

In late 2011, Bill Williams stood on a ridge in the Penokee Hills, overlooking his company’s proposed site for a $1.5 billion iron ore mine. A reporter asked him about the environmental challenges posed by such a project.

Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite, batted the concern away. If a problem should arise, he told the reporter, “We have to engineer our way out of it.”

In late February, Williams announced that his company was dropping plans for the northern Wisconsin mine for now, saying the environmental challenges proved too great. That drew the mother of all “I told you sos” from Bob Jauch, a former Democratic state senator whose district included the mine site.

“I always had the impression that this company was not ready for this project,” Jauch says. He says it was focused more on the political process than on the challenges posed by the mine itself. And he rips Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers for having “genuflected to (the company) in blind obedience” to pass a mining bill that weakened state environmental protections.

Jauch says the bruising political battle over the mining bill “tore the community apart. It pitted neighbor versus neighbor. It destroyed relationships. And for what? All to come to the conclusion that this thing was never feasible in the first place.”

Tracy Hames, executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, says it was abundantly apparent that the number and quality of wetlands on the proposed mine site would be practically impossible to mitigate, as required under state and federal law. “This is an unbelievably special place.”

George Meyer, former secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources, agrees the wetland challenges and potential complications due to Native American treaty rights likely doomed the project from the start. Meyer now heads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which did not oppose the mine but fought the changes to the mining law.

In March 2012, the Legislature’s effort to retool this law failed when then-Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, refused to go along. In that fall’s elections, Republicans increased their control of the state Senate to 18-15, enough to overcome Schultz’s opposition. The bill passed in March 2013.

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign tallied more than $15 million in donations to state political campaigns from pro-mining forces between 2010 and mid-2012. Groups on both sides spent more than 14,000 hours lobbying on the mining bills between 2011 and 2014. And Gogebic Taconite funneled $700,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth, which helped Walker and other Republicans in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections.

Walker’s 2013 State of the State speech featured out-of-work union miners in hard hats representing some of the thousands of jobs he said the mine would bring. Now the promise of those jobs has evaporated, and the state is left with weakened protections.

“I think the credibility of the Legislature took a major hit, as did the governor,” Meyer says.

Williams told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that while his company had good relations with regulators under Walker, “there is probably still a subculture at the DNR, for lack of a better word, that is green.” He and Walker also blamed federal wetlands mitigation requirements; but these were in place earlier, when both were aglow with optimism about the mine.

Gogebic Taconite says it will continue to look into the possibility of a mine. And while declining prices for iron ore make that unlikely in the near future, Ashland County Board member Charles Ortman told the Ashland Daily Press this prospect is “never really gone for good, not until that pile of ore is gone.” He worries that there will now be a push to relax federal rules.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” he said, “but we saw what happened here, and the same

man who made that happen is now running for president.”

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight. The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.


Environmentalists seek permanent protection of Penokee

UPDATED: The company that sought to open a massive iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin is instead packing up its office. The Gogebic Taconite mining company announced the closure of its office in Hurley and said further investment in the venture is unfeasible.

The decision, announced in a press statement by Gogebic president Bill Williams, brings to a halt the effort to transform land in the Penokee Hills in the Iron/Ashland county border into an iron mine. The proposal, brought forward in 2011 and advanced by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators, drew strong opposition from environmentalists and Native American tribal members in the region. The development was planned for the Bad River Watershed, where many streams flow to Lake Superior and through the wild rice beds of the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation.

Williams, in the press statement, said Florida-based Gogebic would continue to investigate the possibility of pursuing the mine but it couldn’t justify the office expense: “Our extensive environmental investigation and analysis of the site has revealed wetland issues that make major continued investment unfeasible at this time.”

“It took Gogebic Taconite roughly four years to determine what has been obvious to local Wisconsin citizens and the Bad River Tribe from day one, when a giant open pit iron mine was proposed for the pristine Bad River Watershed: mining in this area is not feasible,” said Shahla Werner, director of the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter in Wisconsin. 

In 2013, with Walker backing the project, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a bill easing environmental regulations to clear the way for the mine. The votes followed Gogebic’s $700,000 investment in the Republican Party of Wisconsin during the recall elections.

But Gogebic still faced obstacles, with regulatory reviews, tribal resistance, environmental opposition and local government concerns.

At one point, Gogebic hired an armed paramilitary force to guard the proposed mining area after Native American tribal leaders established an “education center” nearby.

But the strong opposition continued.

Last summer, the Wisconsin Federation of Tribes asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop the mine under the Clean Water Act. The same approach effectively halted the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.

Environmental advocates refrained from declaring victory, but they cheered the latest development.

“From the first rumor of this mining company coming into Wisconsin’s Northwoods five years ago, there was no debating the significant risk to natural resources the mine posed,” stated the Clean Wisconsin advocacy group. “The value of the Northwood’s wetlands, trout streams, lakes, wild rice beds, majestic forests, clean drinking water and the beauty of Lake Superior is immeasurable, and it would have been jeopardized by Gogebic Taconite’s plans for an open-pit iron mine. We hope lessons will be learned from this experience, and that Wisconsin won’t soon go down the path again of weakening environmental laws for the risky and shortsighted plans of a single company.”

In a statement released after Williams announced the office’s closure, Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick called the development unfortunate. “We remain committed to working with companies interested in creating quality, family-supporting jobs in Wisconsin,” the statement read.

Werner said Gogebic and the state GOP used the mining proposal for “Walker’s personal political gain to give false promises of jobs they had no intentions of delivering to people in northern Wisconsin.”

And now, Werner continued, “We have the responsibility to work together to develop real, sustainable jobs in tourism, clean energy, forestry, family farming, health care, education and more that won’t sacrifice our land, water and wildlife for future generations.”

Environmentalists also are working for permanent protections in the area and to change the measures adopted to favor the Gogebic project.

“We will work to repeal the laws written by Gogebic Taconite based on false science and equally false promises that gutted environmental protections for this single proposal,” said Dave Blouin, mining committee chair with the Sierra Club -John Muir Chapter. “Gov. Walker and the Republican Legislature…are willing to sacrifice northern Wisconsin in exchange for campaign donations to further their political ambitions. The governor and the GOP-led Legislature gave Gogebic Taconite everything it wanted and gave state residents nothing in return.”

The Sierra campaign will focus on repealing Act 1 and Act 81, enacted in 2013.

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Appeals court ruling today might renew Walker ‘John Doe’ probe

A federal appeals court today overturned a lower court’s ruling that halted an investigation into alleged illegal campaign coordination between Gov. Scott Walker and more than two dozen conservative groups, including the Koch brother’s Wisconsin Club for Growth.

The ruling this afternoon by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago is a defeat for Walker and corporate-right groups, who argued they have done nothing wrong and blasted the investigation is a partisan witch hunt.

The special prosecutor leading the investigation, who was hired by a bipartisan group of district attorneys and nonpartisan panel of retired judges, is a Republican who says he voted for Walker. 

Wisconsin Club for Growth and its director, Eric O’Keefe, sued in February to halt the investigation, arguing that it violated their free speech rights, despite state law forbidding campaigns to coordinate election activities with third-party political action committees. Money spent by the PACs on campaigns is often referred to as “dark money,” because contributors are not required to be identified.

A federal judge in May sided with Club for Growth, but the appeals court reversed that ruling today, saying the case belongs in state courts.

The investigation remains effectively blocked, however, because of a state judge’s ruling in January.

Documents released in May show prosecutors believe Walker was at the center of a nationwide “criminal scheme” to illegally coordinate fundraising with outside conservative groups.

Court documents released in August included emails showing that Walker’s recall election campaign team told him to instruct donors to give to Wisconsin Club for Growth, which would then run ads for Walker and distribute money to other conservative groups backing him.

The emails were part of some 1,300 pages released by a federal appeals court from a secret investigation into whether Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups.

It’s not clear whether Walker followed the instructions from his team. But the documents say millions of dollars later moved from Wisconsin Club for Growth to groups backing Walker in the recall election.

The documents also showed that Gogebic Taconite gave $700,000 in dark money to Walker’s campaign. The company wants to develop a highly controversial iron-ore pit mine in the state. One of Walker’s first actions after becoming governor was to ease the permitting process for mines without first seeking input from people who live near the proposed mining site or environmental experts.

Walker claims he never knew that the company made such a large contribution on his behalf.

This is a developing story.

Walker says he didn’t solicit mining company money

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is saying that he played no role in soliciting donations from a mining company on behalf of a key conservative group that ran ads supporting him during the 2012 recall attempt and that he didn’t even know the company donated to the group.

While at a Kenosha campaign stop over the weekend, Walker said he was not aware of $700,000 donated by Gogebic Taconite in 2011 and 2012 to Wisconsin Club for Growth, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

When asked if the donations and subsequent legislation last year — which streamlined state mining requirements and paved the way for an iron mine in northern Wisconsin — were part of some pay-to-play scheme, Walker said, “That’s a ridiculous argument.”

Walker said he had long been supportive of easing regulations on mining.

Court documents released last week by a federal appeals court show that prosecutors believe Walker solicited donations for Wisconsin Club for Growth to get around campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements as he fended off the recall attempt.

Aides told Walker to tell donors that they could make unlimited donations to Wisconsin Club for Growth without having the gifts publicly disclosed. Wisconsin Club for Growth then funneled the money to other conservative groups that advertised on Walker’s behalf.

It’s not clear from the documents whether Walker followed the instructions from his team. But the documents say millions of dollars later moved from donors he was set to speak with to Wisconsin Club for Growth, which in turn funded groups backing Walker in the recall election.

The documents are part of a secret investigation into whether Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups during the run-up to the June 2012 recall, which was spurred by anger over Walker’s signature law stripping most public workers of nearly all their union rights. The probe has dogged Walker as he is locked in a dead heat with Democratic Mary Burke in the governor’s race and considers a 2016 presidential run.

At a later Racine stop over the weekend, Walker said he helped solicit contributions to Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011 primarily to help Republican state Senators who faced recalls.

He said he is not raising funds for Wisconsin Club for Growth in the current election. He also said he doesn’t believe he raised funds for the group during his 2010 campaign for governor.

A federal judge in Milwaukee halted the secret probe in May after Wisconsin Club for Growth filed a lawsuit alleging the investigation violated its free speech rights and the prosecutors are liberals out to harass and tarnish conservatives.

The prosecutors have asked the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to allow them to restart the probe. The court released the documents tied to that appeal in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of media and open government groups.

The documents became briefly available on a federal court website last Friday. Attorneys have been arguing over which ones should be made public, and the records were quickly removed.

Tensions flare between Wisconsin DNR, Gogebic Taconite

Tensions between state regulators and a company that wants to bring an open pit iron mine to northern Wisconsin could be a signal of more conflict yet to come.

Gogebic Taconite and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources got into a public dispute last week over how much regulatory authority remains in the agency’s hands after Republicans in 2013 enacted a law that rolled back environmental restrictions to make mining easier.

The dispute over what is and isn’t allowed under the untested mining law may be a preview of what’s to come when the company seeks a mining permit, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Sunday.

Letters illustrating the tensions were posted on the DNR website last week. The company objected to a DNR research document that listed environmental hazards of mining, which the company considered biased, and it sharply criticized the extent of agency questions about Gogebic’s plans to dig up rock for testing.

“All of the tests and modeling we’ve done cost money,” company spokesman Bob Seitz said. “(Some studies cost) tens of thousands of dollars a crack. So this should be about what’s necessary and not what’s wanted to satisfy curiosity.”

Seitz said multiple rounds of questions from the DNR have delayed completion of its plan for collecting bulk samples from the site in Iron and Ashland counties.

Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat whose district includes the mine site near Mellen, accused the company of “bullying” tactics.

Gogebic Taconite’s tough tone will backfire if the DNR is forced to deny the company’s final mining permit because the company fails to provide needed data within the new law’s tightened timeline for decision by the state, Jauch said.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters issued a statement to supporters highlighting the developments and problems with the proposed mine.

Kerry Schumann, the group’s executive director, referred to reports: that Gogebic president Bill Williams faces allegations of violating environmental laws in connection with the development of a copper mine, that the leaked DNR report says Gogebic’s proposed mine in Wisconsin presents a threat to “human health and clean water” and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Wisconsin’s new fast-track mining law would slow the approval process because it’s inconsistent with federal law.

Calling Wisconsinites to action, Schumann stated, “Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters knew from day one that Bill Williams and Gogebic Taconite couldn’t be trusted. Unfortunately, their friends in power at the Capitol gave them a free pass to pollute our air, land, and water.”

“GTAC and other corporate polluters have no more allegiance to our home state of Wisconsin than to a foreign country like Spain. To them, your favorite places in Wisconsin – its land and water – are just commodities with dollar signs on them.”

Wisconsin tribe sets up anti-mine online donation plan

A northwestern Wisconsin Chippewa tribe has started raising money for a possible lawsuit challenging a giant iron mine near their reservation.

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has set up a link on the tribe’s website that allows visitors to donate directly to the tribe. The site also lists an address for mailing chec

Gogebic Taconite wants to dig an open-pit mine just south of the tribe’s Ashland County reservation. Republican lawmakers passed a law earlier this month loosening the state’s mining regulations to help the company.

Tribal members fear pollution from the mine will contaminate their water and wild rice sloughs.