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Overview of ferrous (iron) mining in Wisconsin

Iron mining has more than a 150-year history in Wisconsin. By the mid-1800s there were iron mines operating in Dodge and Sauk counties, and by the turn of the century, iron was being mined in Jackson, Florence, Marinette, Iron and Ashland counties.

Much of this early iron mining occurred in small, underground mines and was a major contributor to the cultural identity of these areas that still resonates today. The last operational iron mining operation in the state was the Jackson County Iron Company Mine, which ceased operations in 1982 and has since been reclaimed as the Wazee Lake County Park and recreational area just outside of Black River Falls.

Although there are currently no operating iron mines in Wisconsin, there are still iron reserves in several of the iron districts that from time to time attract interest from industry. While iron mining in Wisconsin has a vibrant history, it also has the potential to cause environmental damage, and as such the laws regulating it have changed a great deal over the years to protect against such impacts.

Regulation of ferrous mining activity

Iron mining in Wisconsin is regulated under Ch. 295, subchapter III, Wis. Stats. The regulatory framework was established in 2013 Wisconsin Act 1, which became effective on March 26, 2013. Specific phases of mining-related activities regulated under this law include exploration (drilling), bulk sampling, mining and reclamation.

Current ferrous mining prospects

The largest occurrence of iron in Wisconsin is the Gogebic Iron Range. The Gogebic Iron Range is an 80-mile-long belt of distinctive Precambrian bedrock in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It stretches east to west, roughly from Lake Gogebic in Michigan to Lake Namekagon in Wisconsin.

The Penokee/Gogebic Taconite Deposit generally refers to a 21-mile-long segment of the Gogebic Iron Range between the community of Upson and Mineral Lake in Wisconsin. The deposit contains up to 30% iron in the form of magnetite and hematite. Because the iron ore is of lower grade than the naturally concentrated hematitic ore bodies mined previously in northern Wisconsin, the ore must be concentrated and processed into taconite pellets prior to shipping to a steel mill.

In 2013, Gogebic Taconite, LLC, issued a preapplication notification indicating their intent to file an application for a mining permit to construct a mine on a 4-mile stretch of the Gogebic deposit located between Upson and Mellen in Iron and Ashland counties. However, in March 2015 the DNR received a letter from Gogebic Taconite notifying the department that the company was withdrawing its preapplication notice related to a proposed mine. Learn more about the Gogebic Taconite, LLC, potential mining project.

Ferrous mining approval process

Iron mining projects are generally substantial in scope and as such are subject to a number of environmental permits and review processes. Generally speaking, the process can take several years to complete, and begins with a potential applicant submitting a mining permit application package and Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

Once the department receives a complete application/EIR, the formal review process begins. During the review process, the department creates an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) regarding the impacts of the potential project. This EIS is used along with public comments to issue a final determination on the potential mine.

The iron mining permitting process is complex and involves the cooperation between the DNR, local and federal agencies.