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Metallic mining permitting process

Before the DNR can issue a metallic mining permit, an applicant must demonstrate that the proposed project will comply with all environmental laws; protect sensitive lands and habitat; and protect public health, safety and welfare.

Generally, the permitting process can be divided into three steps: applicant submittal, regulatory review and impact analysis, and issuance or denial of the necessary permits and approvals.

The DNR requires that an applicant submit the following documents to qualify for a metallic mining permit:

  • mining permit application (which includes a mining plan, reclamation plan, monitoring plan and contingency plan and an irrevocable trust agreement proposal);
  • feasibility report for any proposed mining waste facilities;
  • environmental impact report; and
  • all necessary additional permit applications.

Information in these documents characterizes the natural, physical and chemical environment surrounding the project site, and serves as a foundation the DNR will use to analyze potential impacts from the proposed mining operation. If necessary, the DNR can request additional data. A well-defined project helps the DNR determine if the mine would meet the applicable requirements, thus ensuring that the natural resources and surrounding environment are protected to the extent possible.

Once all documents and permit applications are received, the DNR must first determine if the submitted material is in compliance with the laws and regulations. Second, the DNR must analyze the potential impacts from the proposed project, consider potential alternatives and publish an environmental impact statement (EIS). Then, through a contested case hearing (or master hearing), the DNR makes a decision on all necessary permits and approvals. Throughout the process, there are many opportunities for public comment.

Notice of intent and scope of study

To begin, a company must determine if a metallic mineral deposit is present in an area and whether the deposit contains economic amounts of recoverable minerals. This is evaluated through an active exploration and/or prospecting program, activities the DNR regulates. If a company discovers an economically recoverable ore body and wishes to develop a mine, the company must issue a Notice of Intent to collect data that could be used in a mining permit application. The Notice of Intent must include information on the ore body, project facilities, ore processing techniques, waste types generated and a project schedule.

In addition, the applicant may submit a Scope of Study for public and DNR comment. The Scope of Study details proposed environmental studies that will be conducted as part of the permitting At this point, the DNR would hold public informational hearings (typically in the county where the proposed project is located) to solicit comments on the anticipated environmental impacts and desired baseline studies to be conducted by the applicant or the DNR. These hearings enable the public with an opportunity to comment on issues that could potentially be addressed in the required Environmental Impact to be prepared and submitted by the applicant.

Mining permit application

Mining facilities have minimum design and operation requirements, in addition to location criteria and environmental standards. The location, design, construction, operation and maintenance of mining facilities must minimize disturbance to wetlands. An applicant must submit a mining plan, reclamation plan, monitoring plan irrevocable trust agreement proposal and other materials described below.

Mining plan

The mining plan describes the mine layout, mining process and operation as well as groundwater and surface water collection and treatment techniques. The applicant must explain in detail the final configuration of the mine after mining activities end. A risk assessment of possible health and environmental hazards associated with the mine operation must be performed. Contingency measures with respect to these risks and hazards must be explicitly stated.

Reclamation plan

The purpose of the reclamation plan is to provide detailed information describing the sequence and anticipated duration of reclamation activities. This may vary according to the process in which a site is disturbed. For example, if a tailings or mining waste disposal facility is constructed and closed in stages, the facility will be under different phases of reclamation at any given time. In principle, the permit holder is required.

The reclamation plan specifies a target post-mining land use and its relationship to the surrounding environment. The applicant must determine a projected cost estimate for fulfilling the reclamation plan by an outside contractor. Prior to site construction and initiation of mining, the applicant must post a bond or other financial assurance mechanism in order to cover the costs of reclamation as a means to ensure that reclamation will be performed without cost to taxpayers. The department retains a portion of the bond for at least 20 years after issuing a certificate of completion of reclamation for the site. However, a company's liability for the project never ends.

Monitoring plan

Prior to initiation of mining, the applicant must obtain representative background data characteristics of the natural environment surrounding the project site, including surface water and groundwater chemistry, geology, and information on terrestrial ecology (soil, vegetation, etc.). For enforcement actions, the DNR assesses background data and monitoring data collected during operation. This data plays an important role in determining baseline concentrations of many constituents naturally present. From this, an objective determination of the potential impact of mining activities may be made by analyzing data collected throughout the life of a mining project. This evaluation is fundamentally dependent on an effective monitoring plan.

Irrevocable trust agreement proposal

A mining permit applicant or holder must also create an irrevocable trust agreement prior to mining. The trust agreement must be maintained for an indefinite time after operations cease, that is to say, in perpetuity. The trust fund is intended to assure that funds are available to cover certain costs associated with reasonably anticipated preventive measures, remedial actions related to unanticipated spills, releases from mining and mining waste facilities and replacement of damaged drinking water supplies should the responsible party not be available. The trust fund does not affect a company's liability or responsibility under other provisions of law and also does not replace any other requirements for posting financial guarantees, such as the reclamation bond and financial.

The trust fund amount will be determined through the mine permitting process and finalized as part of the decision on whether to issue the mining permit. The fund will be structured so that, after the period of scheduled deposits by the permittee, it will be self-sustaining and adequate to finance necessary preventive and remedial actions well into the future. The permittee must also post a performance bond or insurance in the full amount of the trust fund before the start of construction at the mining site. This secondary form of financial guarantee must remain in place until all mandatory payments into the trust fund have been made. The adequacy of the fund would be periodical.

Feasibility report for mining waste facilities

Metallic mining projects typically generate large volumes of waste, including tailings and waste rock during the mining, milling and concentrating processes. Tailings are fine-grained rock particles that have been crushed (finely ground) to separate the desirable minerals from the ore. Metallic mining tailings and waste rock from sulfide mineral deposits, once exposed to air or water, may oxidize and release contaminants (metals) into the environment. As a result, tailings are required to be stored in a facility designed to protect the environment - generally.

The DNR has written rules that regulate the location, design, construction, operation, maintenance, closure and long-term care of a facility used for the storage and disposal of metallic mining wastes. Initially, an applicant submits a feasibility report to the DNR for review. The DNR uses site-specific data submitted with the report to determine whether the site may be approved for the purpose intended, if the initial design is appropriate and to identify any conditions which must be included in the follow-up plan of operation.

Accordingly, the following information must be submitted to the DNR:

  • general facility overview;
  • waste characterization and analysis;
  • regional data (physical and chemical);
  • site-specific data;
  • proposed facility design;
  • water budget calculations;
  • aesthetic impact;
  • dam safety factors;
  • contingency plan;
  • closure and long-term care plans; and
  • an alternative design, location and operation submittals.

The applicant must also describe the site selection process for the proposed waste disposal and storage facilities. The encompassing nature of the state's regulations, in addition to the magnitude of data that must be collected and submitted, greatly augments the level of environmental protection.

The feasibility report for a waste disposal facility must provide for groundwater protection. As part of the permitting process, the applicant must demonstrate through numerical modeling that any contaminants that may leave the tailings management area will not violate groundwater quality standards. A solute transport model - together with a groundwater flow model and data generated during the waste characterization tests - is generally used to predict concentrations of certain parameters at the specified design management zone (DMZ), 1,200 feet from the outside edge of the proposed waste facility. The prediction of contaminant migration and concentration values at the DMZ must also be performed for the mine after mining has ended, as a means to assess possible groundwater contamination.

Environmental impact report

The environmental impact report is a disclosure document submitted by a company seeking a metallic mining permit. The applicant needs to present detailed information on the natural environment in the vicinity of the proposed project, disclose potentially significant impacts associated with the proposed project and identify possible alternatives or mitigation actions considered by the company. The report focuses on, but is not limited to:

  • 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; and
  • aesthetics and socioeconomic issues.

The DNR may hold public informational meetings on the applicant's environmental impact report.

Additional permit applications

The total number of permits and approvals required will depend on site-specific variables and project design but may include the following:

  • 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; and
  • storm water discharge.

In addition, the applicant must obtain all necessary permits and approvals from local units of government for the DNR to issue the mining permit.

DNR review process

Before a mining permit can be issued, the applicant must provide the DNR with considerable information about the proposed project as part of the mining permit application and feasibility report. The applicant discloses potential impacts from the project in the environmental impact report submitted to the DNR. The DNR must review the information submitted and determine if there are additional data needs in order to complete the DNR's independent analysis of potential impacts from the proposed project.

Environmental impact statement

At this point, the Bureau of Integrated Science Services (in cooperation with other DNR programs) must prepare a required assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposed mining project. Initially, the DNR publishes a draft environmental impact statement. This document describes the mining proposal, the affected natural and cultural resources and the environmental and cultural impacts of the proposed mine. Mitigation measures and an analysis of project alternatives are also considered.

An environmental impact statement (EIS) does not contain specific conclusions regarding whether the project can be permitted. Rather, the EIS is prepared to inform a project's decision-maker and the public of a proposed action's (in this case the mine's) effect on the environment. The EIS is an objective document prepared by the Department with the assistance of independent consultants.

Once a draft EIS is prepared and released for public review, the DNR must hold a public hearing within 30 to 60 days to receive comments on the document. Comments received both orally and in writing during the public comment period are taken into consideration during the DNR's preparation of the final EIS. Approximately four months after the end of the comment period, the DNR releases the final EIS.

Master hearing

Within six months following the release of the final EIS, the DNR must hold the project master hearing on all permits and approvals requested by the applicant. The hearing is generally convened in the county where the proposed mine is located, although it may be adjourned to other locations. During the master hearing, all aspects of the proposal are examined in a court-like setting. The hearing is divided into two major parts: an open hearing (which may last a few days) where the public is invited to provide comments and a contested case hearing (which may last several weeks to months) where testimony by expert witnesses is under oath, evidence.

During this examination, project-related evidence is closely scrutinized. Information reviewed consists of the mining permit application (which includes a mining plan, reclamation plan, monitoring and contingency plan and an irrevocable trust agreement proposal), the adequacy of the analyses in the DNR's final EIS, satisfaction of the mining moratorium law and to the fullest extent possible all other applications for permits, approvals and licenses.

Final determination

The decision-maker for all permits, licenses or approvals issued by the DNR is the DNR secretary. The secretary, however, may designate the hearing examiner (or administrative law judge) to make all decisions.

At the conclusion of this hearing, the hearing examiner (or secretary of the DNR) determines whether the project would be capable of complying with all applicable criteria of state environmental protection laws and regulations and also determines whether the DNR has complied with the requirements of the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act in the development of the EIS. If the record of the master hearing shows that all criteria have been met, then the DNR must issue the mining permit and other necessary approvals. Any final decision on permits is open to appeal through the courts.