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Ferrous (iron) mining permitting process

Metallic mining involves the extraction of minerals bearing iron, copper, gold, lead, silver and zinc. For ferrous (iron) and other metallic mining, the DNR is the state agency with primary responsibility for regulating environmental aspects of mining.

2013 Wisconsin Act 1, effective March 26, 2013, created a regulatory framework for potential ferrous (iron) mining projects under Ch. 295, subchapter III, Wis. Stats. This effectively separated such projects from all other metallic mining projects regulated under Ch. 293, Wis. Stats.

The ferrous mining law regulates all phases of a potential ferrous mining project, including exploration (drilling), bulk sampling, mining and reclamation. The DNR is responsible for reviewing proposed iron mining projects within the regulatory framework to minimize impacts to the state's environmental and natural resources.


Exploration is the drilling and collection of samples to ascertain geological and geochemical data about a prospective deposit. It is generally the initial stage of a potential mining project and helps the applicant characterize the orebody and develop a mine plan. The DNR requires a license for ferrous mining exploration under Ch. 295.44, Wis. Stats.

Exploration activities may also be subject to additional DNR approvals depending on the details of the exploration plan.

Local approval

In addition to the statewide approval process for iron mining, any prospective mining project would also have to receive all necessary approvals under applicable local zoning ordinances to proceed with exploration, bulk sampling and mining overall. Potential applicants should check with their county or township zoning authority early in the process.

Federal approval

Prospective iron mining projects are also subject to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act. Examples of federal approvals necessary include a Sec. 404 permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and approvals issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Bulk sampling

Bulk sampling is the removal and collection of a limited amount of material (less than 10,000 tons) from a potential mining project to assess the quality and quantity of a ferrous mineral deposit. Bulk sampling aids in the creation of a mine plan, waste rock characterization and reclamation plan.

Applicants submit a bulk sampling plan to the department for review along with a preapplication description providing information about the potential mining project. Once a bulk sampling plan has been submitted, the department issues the applicant a letter identifying what other approvals may be necessary in order to commence bulk sampling. In most cases, the department would also hold a public informational hearing on the bulk sampling plan, preapplication notification and preapplication description.

Preapplication notification

At least 12 months prior to filing an application for mining, a potential applicant must submit a preapplication notification to the department in writing notifying them of their intention to file a mining application. The department will then meet with the applicant to learn about the potential project and outline the timeline and approvals necessary to formally apply for a permit, as well as information needed for the environmental impact report and the various permit applications.

Application for a mining permit

The application for a mining permit requires the following major components:

  • mining plan;
  • reclamation plan; and
  • waste site feasibility study.
Mining plan

The mining plan is a thorough and detailed description of all aspects of the potential mining activity. The mining plan covers aspects of the operation like the operations plan, health and environmental risk assessments, analysis of groundwater and surface water management, infrastructure and utility needs, and governmental notification of hazardous conditions.

Reclamation plan

The reclamation plan discusses ways the applicant will minimize adverse effects on the environment during and post-operation of the mine. It includes a discussion on the specified post-mining land use for the mine site and a thorough description of how the site will be reclaimed to achieve the specified land use.

The reclamation plan also includes an estimate of the financial cost to reclaim the site and requires that the applicant post a bond or other financial assurance mechanism sufficient to cover the costs of reclamation in the event of operator default.

Waste site feasibility study

The waste site feasibility study details the generation, storage and disposal of mine waste materials such as waste rock and tailings. The study includes a detailed analysis of the chemical and physical properties of the waste materials, their disposal and how the waste site will interact with the surrounding environmental resources. Specific analyses included in the waste site feasibility study include:

  • a general facility overview;
  • waste characterization and analysis;
  • site-specific data;
  • proposed facility design;
  • water budget calculations;
  • groundwater quality compliance assessment;
  • contingency plan;
  • closure and long-term care plans; and
  • an alternative design, location and operation submittals.

Environmental Impact Report (EIR)

Concurrent to the mining application, the applicant will also submit an EIR. The EIR is a detailed document highlighting the proposed mining project, the present environmental and socioeconomic conditions of the mine area, the anticipated environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the proposed mining project and analysis of project alternatives. The EIR is then used by the department to create an environmental impact statement (EIS) regarding the potential mining project. The EIR contains a detailed analysis of the following aspects of the mining project:

  • an analysis of the cultural resources;
  • air quality;
  • geology and soils;
  • groundwater;
  • surface water and bottom sediments;
  • aquatic biology;
  • terrestrial biology;
  • threatened and endangered species;
  • wetlands;
  • aesthetics and socioeconomic issues; and
  • socioeconomics.

Additional permits required

In addition to the mining permit, there may be additional permits required to operate a metallic mine. Permits that may be necessary include:

  • dredging or filling of wetlands;
  • air quality;
  • solid waste facility construction;
  • mine dewatering;
  • high-capacity wells;
  • wastewater treatment system and sewage treatment plant;
  • treated wastewater discharge;
  • culvert installation;
  • bridge construction;
  • installation of erosion control measures;
  • storm water discharge; and
  • water withdrawal and water use.

Once a mining permit and EIR have been submitted, the department has 30 days to determine whether or not an application is administratively complete. Once that occurs, the department has 420 days to issue a decision on the proposed mining project unless an alternate schedule has been agreed to by the applicant.

Environmental Impact Statement publication

Upon receipt of an environmental impact report (EIR), the department begins the EIS process, by which an EIS is created to assess the overall environmental, cultural and socioeconomic impacts of the proposed mining project. The EIS is not a decision-making document; rather it informs the decision-makers and the public about the potential impacts of the project.

Public information and hearing

The iron mining law includes provisions for a public review period and a public informational hearing concerning the EIS and draft decision documents. Comments received both orally and in writing during the public comment period are taken into consideration.

After the hearing, the DNR will issue a written summary and response to the public comment period.

Approval/denial deadline

Following the public hearing and release of the comment summary and response document, the department will issue a final determination to approve or deny the mining permit and other necessary permits and approvals in writing to the applicant.