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Special Session bill seeks to alter DNR permitting process
Public notification rules may be reduced
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A joint hearing of the Assembly Natural Resources and Senate Natural Resources Committees was scheduled for Wednesday of this week to discuss a bill stirring concern amongst a number of conservation groups throughout the state.

Special Session bill AB24/SB24 was introduced by request from Governor Scott Walker, Representative Mursau (R-Crivitz), and Senator Kedzie (R-Elkhorn.)

While the bill is largely concerned with the laws governing the building of wharves and bridges of waterways, wording within the legislation affects the individual permitting process which also governs high capacity wells, oil and gas production, and mine prospecting and activities along special resource waters such as trout streams and wild rice waters.

Current applications for high capacity wells, oil and gas production, and mine prospecting are not subject to time limits in permitting process for determining whether an application is complete, both in terms of applicant required input, environmental analysis and review, beyond a 30-day review period. It also requires public notification within 15 days of the permit being considered complete followed by a 30-day public right to request a hearing and public comment period.

The new bill proposes to change that process significantly.

If adopted, once the DNR determines if an application is incomplete, they (the DNR) may make only one request for additional information pertaining to the permit during the 30-day review period. If the DNR does make a request for additional information, it will automatically trigger the time limits for public hearing and input.

Additionally, the bill shortens the time in which a public hearing can be requested by ten days.

Under the bill, if the DNR fails to comply with 30-day and ten-day time limits relating to determining whether an application is complete, the date of closure will be automatically triggered and the permit or contract will be automatically approved.

The new bill also changes public notice requirements for the DNR. Current law requires DNR to publish a newspaper notice containing specified information relating to certain laws that it administers. The types of notices that DNR must publish include notices of scheduled hearings, of the opportunity to submit a written comment, and of the opportunity to request a public hearing and notice that provide certain other information to the public.

This bill allows the DNR, instead of publishing these notices in the newspaper, to publish these notices on its Internet Web site only.

According to the Wisconsin League of Conservation voters, “Special Session AB 24 & SB 24” would cut the public out of the decisions that affect their communities... The bill eliminates public hearings on permits and forces the public to comment on incomplete information during shortened timelines. The bill forces the DNR to passively issue permits for high capacity wells, oil and gas production, and mine prospecting even if there is not enough time or information to make an informed decision about a permit application. Finally, Special Session AB 24 & SB 24 makes it much harder to protect new waterways in the future and removes protections for a set of existing waterways. Many of the most egregious provisions of a draft mining bill from earlier in the session are contained in this bill.”

According to the local group Save Copper Creek, currently involved in fighting the installation of a proposed high-capacity well next to the north branch of Class I trout stream Copper Creek in Utica Township, Darlene Cook, a member of their steering committee, would be on hand to testify at the hearings on the groups behalf.

“This (bill) makes the process useless if there isn’t enough time to assess a project,” explained Bob Van Hoesen of Save Copper Creek. “When we first heard about the proposed well, we needed time to locate the scientists who could give us independent analysis and the legal experts who could advise us how to proceed.”

“Amongst the conservation groups in this state, I think there is a great deal of opposition to this bill,” Van Hoesen said.

Issuing a statement in response to the proposed bill, Save Copper Creek said:

“We would oppose these bills because they arbitrarily shorten the time allowed for environmental analysis and public review and input.  The idea of presumptive approval of permits makes the whole process useless if there's not enough time to properly review an application.

“This should not be a race to see how fast the DNR can issue permits at all costs -- it should be about allowing enough time to accurately and completely assess the environmental impact of a proposed project.

“In the case of Copper Creek, the public and our group needed adequate time to locate scientists and attorneys who could identify and advise us on the environmental and legal aspects of the permitting process.   Under these bills, we would not have enough time to do that.

“In addition, these proposals cut the public out of the decision process by failing to require public hearings and ending newspaper noticing requirements in favor of online-only notices - even in rural areas.”