Iron Mining Legislation

In 2013, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a new law that changed the framework for reviewing and permitting proposed iron mines in the state. The new law was based on bills initially introduced in 2011 at the behest of Gogebic Taconite, a Florida-based mining company.

The stated goal of the new law is to expedite the permitting process for new iron mines, which it does by changing the framework for environmental review and permit approval, relaxing environmental regulations, reducing public input and decreasing accountability for mining corporations.

Key Points

  • When done improperly, mining can have negative impacts on Wisconsin’s environment and threaten the health of our families.
  • The new iron mining law limits the environmental review and public input process for approving mines.
  • The new iron mining law allows the dumping mine waste in sensitive wetlands and small but important lakes, streams, floodplains and shorelands.
  • The law will allow mining companies to draw down water levels from lakes, rivers streams and groundwater.
Clean Wisconsin's Work

At Clean Wisconsin, we fought the attempts to rewrite laws to put the interests of out-of-state corporations and corporate campaign contributors ahead of the public interest and the health of Wisconsin’s residents and environment. Clean Wisconsin is not opposed to mining, but when one company comes in and holds our politicians hostage, there is no doubt that the resulting laws will put corporate profits over environmental protections.

Clean Wisconsin Media and Materials

Questions and Answers

How does the new law affect environmental protections in Wisconsin?

The new law preempts all other applicable state environmental laws. In addition to other provisions, it will allow dumping mine waste into sensitive wetlands, small but important lakes, streams, floodplains and shorelands. It will also reduce protections against the leakage of toxic materials into the waterways;[1] past mines have been known to leak substances including arsenic, copper, nickel and iron.[2]

Some of the major impacts from the new law include provisions that:

  • Allow the filling of lake beds,
  • Allow mining corporations to dump mine waste into sensitive wetlands and floodplains,
  • Doubles the distance around a mining site that can be polluted,
  • Allow mining corporations to draw down water levels from rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater,
  • Allow iron mining law to supersede all other environmental regulations, unlike current law which gives deference to existing environmental laws, and unlike laws all other industry is subject to,
  • Allow DNR to provide an exemption for a mining corporation from any part of the provisions of the mining bill, and
  • Restrict the role and input of local communities in the permit process.

How does the new law impact the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources?

The new law removes the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ rulemaking authority over metallic mining permit regulations. The DNR employs scientists, engineers and policy experts whose jobs are “dedicated to the preservation, protection, effective management, and maintenance of Wisconsin’s natural resources.”[3] Taking the rulemaking authority out of DNR’s hands puts the environment at risk by removing the input of those experts.

The law also:

  • Removes DNR authority to issue a stop work order if the mining operation is an “immediate and substantial threat to public health and safety or the environment.”
  • Changes requirements so that the company only needs to be “committed” to complying with all rules on air, groundwater, surface water, and solid and hazardous waste management instead of requiring mines to comply with those laws.
  • Changes the standard for protecting public health, safety and welfare from the protective standard of “will not” cause harm, to the subjective standard of “reasonably certain not to result in substantial adverse impacts.”

How does the new law affect the public, outside of environmental issues?

In addition to other provisions, the new law:

  • Removes citizens’ right to sue for illegal environmental damage by a mine.
  • Removes meaningful contested case hearings, which happen before a permit is issued and give the public its only opportunity to impact the mining permit, challenge junk science and question mining officials on the record.
  • Reduces the number of required public hearings to only two for the entire mining project; current law requires a minimum of three.
  • Caps the amount a mining corporation must pay to the state for analyzing its permit, leaving the public to pay the remainder of the bill.
  • Allows mining corporations to seek an end to their long-term responsibility for the mining site within 20 years rather than 40 years as required by current law.

What does the new law have to do with the Penokee Range?

The new law was written to help Gogebic Taconite LLC, a Florida-based mining corporation, begin mining the Gogebic Taconite deposit, in the Penokee Range of northern Wisconsin. Since this is the only iron deposit in Wisconsin that is “currently of interest” and hasn’t already been mined,[4] the law immediately effects the Penokee Range.

Why is the Penokee Range important, and what is the potential impact from the new law?

The Penokee Range area hosts 72 rare and endangered plants and animals in the Bad River watershed.[5] This watershed empties into the Chequamegon Bay, one of the largest undeveloped freshwater estuaries in the world.[6] There is the potential for ecologically devastating acid mine drainage to occur when sulfides are exposed to oxygen in the excavation process,[7] and the new law rolls back regulations and reviews on such environmental impacts. Former shaft and pit mines in the Lake Superior basin are still negatively affecting regional ecosystems today.[8]

Quick Facts

According to polling by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 51% of Wisconsinites say environmental regulations should not be weakened, compared to only 38% who are in favor of changing the regulations on mining.[9]

Wisconsin Data, Trends, and Legislation

Rich in natural resources, Wisconsin has a long history of activities that rely on those resources. This includes both activities that preserve them, like fishing, boating and hiking, and activities that draw from them, like mining. Because of this history, we also have a strong tradition of environmental protection.

Instead of ensuring that new mines in Wisconsin can operate without damaging the environment, the new iron mining law rolls back the standards and protections we had in place.

Cited Resources
  1. Clean Wisconsin. Environmental rollbacks under the Open Pit Mining Bill. (2013).
  2. T Meersman. Runoff From Old mines Raises Fears. Star Tribune (October 1, 2010).
  3. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (nd). About Us. Web. Retrieved 2013 from http://dnr.wi.gov/about/
  4. Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey (2011). “Metallic mineral deposits.” Factsheet 04.
  5. The Nature Conservancy (nd). “The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin – Protecting the Place Where Food Grows on Water.” Web. Retrieved 2012 from http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/wisconsin/the-nature-conservancy-in-wisconsin-protecting-the-place-where-food-grows.xml
  6. M Dallman, B Sapper, and C Harrington (1998). The Kakagon/Bad River watershed (pamphlet). Ashland, WI: The Nature Conservancy.
  7. Clean Wisconsin. Penokee Mine Proposal (2012).
  8. R Schaetzl (nd). Iron Mining Today. Web. Retrieved 2012 from http://www.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/iron_iii.html
  9. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (October 30, 2011). “WPRI poll: State split on Walker recall; jobs/economy are primary concerns.” Retrieved from http://wpri.org/polls/Oct2011/poll103011.html.
  10. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (nd). Overview of metallic mining in Wisconsin. Web. Retrieved 2012 from http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Mines/Metallic.html
  11. Wis. Stat. s. 293.89
  12. J Cadotte. “Jobs vs. Environment.” Business North (6/16/2011).
  13. T Cameron, Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District (1/14/2013). Letter to Senator Tim Cullen.
  14. T Evans (2004). “An Overview of Metallic Mineral Regulation in Wisconsin – Third Edition.” Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, Special Report 13, 2004.
  15. SR Jennings, DR Neuman, and PS Blicker (2008). “Acid Mine Drainage and Effects on Fish Health and Ecology: A Review”. Reclamation Research Group Publication, Bozeman, MT.
  16. K Nolan. “Mining equipment sales would mean more sales tax, but not necessarily new jobs.” WisBusiness.com (3/5/2012).
  17. A Schmidt. “A conservative voice against streamlined mining permits.” The Cap Times (3/1/2012).
  18. J Vanegeren. “Q&A: Clean Wisconsin’s lobbyist doubts we’ll see a new mine any time soon.” The Cap Times (1/6/2013).
  19. Wisconsin Legislative Council (10/26/2011). “Ferrous Mining Permit Application Process in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.”
  20. Wisconsin Legislative Council (1/14/2013). “LRB-0762/1, Relating to the Regulation of Ferrous Metallic Mining and Related Activities.”
  21. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (12/15/2010). “Mining Project Execs Gave Walker $10,000.”

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