State's Ferrous Mine Permitting - Streamlined or Bogged Down?

Jan 15, 2014

Credit S Bence

Wisconsin's new iron mining law is being put to the test. A recent announcement from the Army Corps of Engineers casts doubt on whether permitting will roll out as smoothly as planned.

The proposed iron ore mine would need state and federal approval because of potential impacts to the environment. Under the law passed last year, the company that has set out to develop the mine, Gogebic Taconite, could coordinate both governments’ requirements jointly. That should provide the company with a cheaper and easier process.

In fact, the state’s new mining law requires the DNR to formally request that the Army Corps of Engineers enter a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly perform an environmental review within Wisconsin’s newly prescripted 420 day deadline. But the Corps declined the invitation.

Ann Coakley is not surprised. She’s the DNR director of waste and materials management.

“The reason is, we have a very conceptual design from the applicant and they haven’t even started any baseline environmental studies aside from some preliminary wetlands delineations,” Coakley says.

Rebecca Graser of the Army Corps of Engineers says it’s the wetlands’ rich nature of the proposed Penokee mining site that triggers her agency’s involvement in the federal permitting process.

“Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act permit. And what that does, it is not permit for the mine overall, it’s a permit allowing a discharge of dredged or fill materials into aquatic resources that we consider to be waters of the U.S.,” Graser says.

Graser explains “those” are defined as larger rivers, lakes and waterways throughout the nation historically used for commerce.

“Yes it does refer back to commerce ultimately, but the courts have also very clearly articulated that our jurisdiction goes beyond just those waters, to waters – when grouped together – can have a significant contribution to the downstream receiving water, which could be Lake Superior,” Graser says.

The mine would sit high up in an intricate wetland, stream and slough system that ultimately feed into Lake Superior.

Ann Coakley says her agency, the DNR, has successfully worked with the Army Corps through many wetland permits; but says one measure of the state’s new mining law doesn’t line up with federal guidelines. Wisconsin allows an iron mining company to store its waste materials and process the ore adjacent to the mine without gaining a special permit – not so, under federal guidelines.

“The Corps of Engineers requires applicants to avoid and minimize wetland impacts, so if they can avoid wetland impact by, for instance, by locating their processing facilities off-site, that has to be one of their alternatives,” Coakley says.

That’s just one difference in how the agencies will approach an application. Yet, neither Coakley nor Rebecca Graser are ruling out the possibility of working together.

“It’s the decision we had to make with the limited information we have in hand It is something that can be revised if we have sufficient information that would allow us to collaborate,” Graser says.

The window could be closing on that opportunity.

Ann Coakley says the DNR will be sending Gogebic Taconite a letter outlining all the information, from data collection to modeling, the company must provide in its application. She anticipates that letter by the end of February.

The potential environmental impact of the mine remains one of the most hotly debated points of the proposal. Downstream from the site, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa predict the mine would result in polluted air and tainted water.

Republicans who authored the bill exude confidence that it upholds the state’s environmental standards.