DNR Board passes new mining regulations, raises permitting fees for metallic mining
The Natural Resources Board, the policy-setting arm of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, approved a new set of mining rules Wednesday, updating how the agency will permit metallic mining for the first time since 1982.
The DNR will have to adhere to the new set of rules regarding exploration and sampling, prospecting, mining and waste management during the mining process, if they're approved by Gov. Tony Evers and the Legislature, said Larry Lynch, administrative rules coordinator.
The new rules will put into place a series of permits, licenses and other fees, adding up to about $502,000 per project and applied to mining for minerals other than iron, such as copper, nickel, gold, silver, zinc and lead.
The rules are meant to align the DNR's rules with legislation passed in the last several years, specifically Act 134, which opened Wisconsin back up for metallic mining in 2017.
The updates increase the fees for drill holes while doing exploratory drilling, require more detailed plans for exploratory drilling, clarify when licenses are needed and add more detail to when the licenses begin and end.
As for the actual act of mining, the new rules require more detailed applications, add new financial assurance systems, and require more detailed annual reports on how a mining project is progressing. New waste management rules were also passed, creating water standards, detailing how projects are designed and constructed and adding design quality controls.
The board tabled the rules in December after a discussion over amending the meaning of land unsuitable for mining after pushback from lobbying groups, which wanted unsuitable lands to be defined by the Legislature through the lawmaking process, not staff at the DNR.
In the newly passed rules, unsuitable land is defined as habitats required for the survival of endangered species, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, national and state parks, properties of historical significance, archaeological sites and state natural areas. In order for any other land to be listed as unsuitable, it must be designated by a state statute or administrative rule.
Environmental groups, represented by attorney Robert Lundberg of Midwest Environmental Advocates, expressed displeasure with the new rules but acknowledged they had to be passed to keep the department in line with state laws like Act 134.
"We still do not support Act 134 and thus the elements of the rules that must follow that law," he said.
Tina Van Zile, a member and environmental director of the Sokaogon Mole Lake band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, also said the tribe does not support Act 134 but hopes the DNR will use the rules to ensure the future of Wisconsin's resources.
"We hope the rules will adequately protect the land, water and air in the future because the decisions we make today will affect future generations long after we're gone," she said.
Mining remains rare in Wisconsin
While there has been slight interest in exploratory drilling over the last several years, mines aren't all that common in Wisconsin. The last mine permitted was the Flambeau mine in 1982 in Ladysmith. Shortly after that mine was closed in 1997, the "prove it first" law was passed, effectively stopping metallic mining.
The law required a company to show an example of a mine that did not cause any harm in either the U.S. or Canada, operated for at least 10 years, and then was closed for 10 years without pollution. That law was overturned in 2017, though, and has brought renewed interest in mining back to the state.
Some exploratory drilling was done last summer near Rhinelander and the headwaters of the Wolf River but was halted after the company didn't find sufficient amounts of minerals for a mine. A consultant for Badger Minerals said that while the four cores taken over the summer didn't prove to be fruitful, drilling could be conducted in other areas in the future.
Other than that drilling, interest hasn't been high in mining operations in Wisconsin, though there are known deposits in the northern half of the state. Two of the most well-known — the Reef Project in Marathon County and the Bend Project in Taylor County — have been explored by Aquila Resources, the same company pursuing permits for the Back Forty Mine in Michigan.
The potential mine, which would be located just across the Michigan border from Marinette, has been in the works for years but faced its latest blow when a Michigan judge denied one of several necessary permits due to insufficient information about how the mine may impact wetlands.
Ron James has been involved with pushing back against both the drilling near Rhinelander and other exploratory drilling in the northern half of the state. He's worried the new rules don't do enough to protect Wisconsin's natural features, like the Wolf River or the Dells of the Eau Claire River, which are located near the Reef Project.
"Wisconsin is just one step closer to being open for mining," he said.
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.