Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Mining – a historic threat to clean water and air

Mining in Wisconsin is a statewide issue, which is regulated by both state and local laws and regulations that control what is mined, where it is mined and how it is mined. But even with existing regulations, mining activity creates dust and mineral particles that impact our air quality, contaminated runoff that seeps into surface and ground waters, and harmful chemicals that leak into our land and into the plants and animals living on it. With the potential for such impacts, effective mining laws and regulations must be enforced and strengthened.

Metallic mining – including iron ore

The extraction of metallic minerals such as iron, zinc or copper has a long history in Wisconsin, but legal regulation of their environmental impact and safety are a relatively recent development. Metallic mining can be very dangerous, since metallic minerals like iron and copper are commonly found in or around sulfide minerals. Particularly with open-pit or strip mining, sulfuric acid is formed when sulfide minerals are exposed to air and water. As a result, when sulfide minerals are excavated in connection with mining of metals, the non-valuable sulfide minerals release acid that can contaminate groundwater and surface water.

Fear of pollution from the acidic waste rocks is what has led many towns and Native American tribes in Wisconsin to oppose nearby mines. Because of the potential harm from metallic mines, we must insist that regulations to protect the environment and public health are scientifically sound and systematically enforced. Read more about the threat the controversial open-pit iron ore mining posed to the Penokee Range in Iron and Ashland counties.

Non-metallic mining – including frac sand

Non-metallic mining is the extraction of stone, sand, rocks, and other similar minerals. The most common example of a non-metallic mine is a quarry. These mines extract minerals such as limestone, granite, gravel, or sand which are used for road building, landscaping, building supplies for homes, and other everyday uses. More recently, Wisconsin has seen a boom in frac sand mining, which targets a specific type of sand particle that is utilized in natural gas extraction.

While not as dangerous as the sulfuric acid produced by metallic mining, sand and silica from the mines, or from trucks transporting the minerals, is easily airborne and can be a serious public health hazard. Non-metallic mines require large quantities of water to control dust, or to wash sand before its sale. Diverting large amounts of surface or groundwater can impair the rights of nearby or downstream users as well as harm the environment. Finally, frac sand mining uses a mixture of chemical flocculants that can contaminate rivers and drinking water supplies when the diverted water is discharged. Unfortunately, non-metallic mines are much harder to monitor because there are currently no state regulations that specifically govern their conduct, and town and county regulations for these facilities have proven to be less than effective.

Midwest Environmental Advocates works to protect Wisconsin’s environmental heritage and economic opportunities by promoting sound, science-based mining regulations. We recognize the diverse populations and types of communities that mining impacts and believe that all Wisconsinites should be aware of what mining can mean for our land, water and air.

More Mining News from MEA

Comments on OmniTRAX wetland fill application – On March 16, 2018, MEA submitted comments to DNR on behalf of the Ho-Chunk Nation asking DNR to deny OmniTRAX’s application for a wetland fill permit. The OmniTRAX application does not meet legal standards because the proposed project will have significant environmental impacts, there are alternatives that don’t require wetland fill, and OmniTRAX did not provide sufficient information about its plans to compensate for wetland losses. (Attachments 1, 2)

Resources Related to this Issue

Meteor Timber - Petition for Judicial Review

June 19, 2017, on behalf of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a Petition for Judicial Review in Monroe County Circuit Court to challenge the DNR's approval of a wetland fill permit issued to Meteor Timber LLC for an industrial sand processing facility and rail project

Frac Sand Mining Environmental Law Violation Report Form and Resources

August 2016 resource for citizens living near frac sand mining activity to report environmental problems to the DNR, County Conservation office and to MEA.

Frac sand mining laws and rights update for citizens and local officials - July 2016

July 14, 2016 update on the laws and local control powers in frac sand mining includes current context of mining for local residents and governments, defining legal terms, rights of towns in protective zoning and ordinances, "home rule" doctrines, local control ("police power") for health and safety, and the scope of local authority. Also covers citizen petitions for local action, nonmetallic mineral deposit registration (or mineral rights), and eminent domain.

Iron range geology study by Lawrence University Professor Marcia Bjornerud

Geochemical, mineralogical and structural characterization of the Tyler Formation and Ironwood Iron Formation, Gogebic Range, Wisconsin. The report was originally published in July, 2012 for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission by Marcia Bjornerud, Professor of Geology at Lawrence University, among other authors. The study is both a meta analysis of existing literature on the geologic composition of the Penokee Range as well as a review of geochemical research done by Lawrence University staff. The report is important because it shows that sulfide minerals exist in the iron range and would contribute to sulfuric acid pollution if exposed to air and water in taconite excavation and processing.

Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission: Iron Mining in the Lake Superior Basin

Report from 2011 on the taconite ore industries in neighboring Minnesota and Michigan. The report outlines the identification, removal, processing and waste disposal of iron ore and minerals as well as related environmental impact concerns.

Nature Conservancy: Iron Mining in the Penokee Range - What’s at Risk

Written by the Nature Conservancy in Madison, Wisconsin, this short report includes photos and descriptions of the natural resources around the Penokee Range, a map of the surface waters that are downstream of a potential iron mine, and questions to ask before making policy decisions about making changes to state regulations.

Town Regulation of Frac Sand and Non-Metallic Mining Operations in Wisconsin

This outline provides an overview of the legal avenues that towns can take to protect their citizens from the impacts of frac sand mining. Glenn Stoddard, private attorney and Midwest Environmental Advocates friend, kindly provided this outline.

Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin: Legal Background for Citizens & Community Groups

Midwest Environmental Advocates has published this six-page guide to educate Wisconsin citizens and community groups about the legal background and legal opportunities of fighting a frac sand mining operation.