WisBusiness: As unions back new mine, company president says changes to bill could kill project

By Kay Nolan

For WisBusiness.com

MILWAUKEE — Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams (left) says his company will pull its plan to build the mine if lawmakers don’t approve legislation that calls for potential contested case hearings to be held after a permit is issued.

“We wouldn’t get involved then. We feel that strongly about it,” Williams told WisBusiness in an interview following an announcement in Milwaukee that the project would employ mostly union workers to build and operate the proposed mine.

He added a contested case hearing should be limited to a decision by the DNR on the permit or the agency’s inaction.

“Otherwise, it becomes a delay tactic, and we cannot afford to put that kind of investment in it and we’d have troubles getting investors coming in if they see there’s no end to this process.”

Representatives of several labor unions and the Wisconsin Mining Association appeared with Williams at a press conference in Milwaukee.

Union members cheered when told the mine, if approved, would utilize 95 percent union labor.

Terry McGowan, president of Operating Engineers Local 139, which represents heavy-equipment operators, said the construction trade industry is entering its fourth year of double-digit unemployment and some locals have members that haven’t worked in their field for over two years.

“For too long, over the past few years, the construction trade unions have watched politicians dangle infrastructure projects in front of us like a carrot, only to see whose side we will take, as a form of one-upmanship,” said McGowan at the Milwaukee office of the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership. “So we sit, on the bench, and we wait for something to happen.”

Williams assured union reps that the company intends to use both Wisconsin construction companies and Wisconsin workers to construct and operate the mine.

Williams added: “Now, of course, this all hinges on the passage of legislation that will encourage companies to come to this state and invest in its future and invest in its workers. This is not about Republicans, this is not about Democrats, this is not about politics. This is about the people of Wisconsin.”

Williams told WisBusiness that union contracts aren’t always part of his company’s mining operations in the U.S. but it made sense in this case to tap union workers’ expertise and experience.

The mining bill is on the Senate calendar for today after an amended version passed the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee Monday evening.

The bill is expected to only come up for a vote if majority Republicans have the 17 votes needed for passage.

That looked questionable yesterday as Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, knocked a proposed compromise from JFC Co-chairs Alberta Darling and Robin Vos that would add contested case hearings to their previous proposal, but only allow them after a permit has been issued.

Follow today’s legislative action in the WisPolitics Quorum Call blog