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Metallic mining ordinance gets hearing

Douglas County is moving ahead with plans to regulate metallic sulfide mining after the state lifted a decades-long moratorium on the operations.  

Douglas County’s Zoning Committee held the first of two public hearings on the proposed ordinance Tuesday. The ordinance guides requirements and options for permitting a metallic sulfide mining operation in Douglas County.

“For the last few months, we have been discussing the prospect of adopting a metallic mining ordinance in response to the Legislature’s decision to lift the moratorium, the two-decade-long moratorium,” Zoning Administrator Steve Rannenberg said. “We did have an individual from the county that contacted us and was concerned about the fact that we did not have an ordinance in place.”

While Douglas County has long regulated non-metallic mines — excavated for sand, gravel and other non-metallic materials — no ordinance was ever adopted to cover metallic sulfide mining.

Non-metallic mines are regulated through conditional use permits, but the metallic mining ordinance gives the county two options: regulation through a conditional use permit or a local agreement reached between the county and prospective mine operator.

A challenge of conditional-use permits is a change in the law that shifts the burden from the operator to the county to demonstrate detriment in denying a conditional-use permit. Previously, mine operators were required to demonstrate the operation wouldn’t be detrimental.

“That is one of the caveats that we approach as we review that,” Rannenberg said. “We could require that an operator submits a conditional-use permit or the other alternative would be a local agreement.”

A county-formed committee would negotiate the agreement with the prospective operator, and when the agreement is reached, would forward it to the Zoning Committee for a recommendation that would be decided ultimately by the Douglas County Board.

“The benefit to the local agreement is A, that’s what the operators want, and B, we don’t get into the trap where we find ourselves dealing with a conditional-use permit and the burden that is placed on the county about why this copper mine should not be opened,” Rannenberg said.

Supervisor Charlie Glazman questioned the county’s ability to review the local agreement in the same manner the Zoning Committee does with conditional-use permits it issues.

“My concern would be that we would be giving up a certain amount of control and we wouldn’t be able to review or cancel,” Glazman said.  

In addition to including a review process in the local agreement, Rannenberg said there would be monitoring by the state Department of Natural Resources for years. The ordinance does allow for the agreement to be revoked if it is violated, he said.

“There’s always a ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ clause,” Rannenberg said.

While the Zoning Committee debated whether to take out the option for a conditional-use permit, the panel left it in the draft ordinance under consideration to provide flexible options for the county to regulate metallic mines.

“It covers everything,” Supervisor Nick Baker said of the model ordinance developed by the Wisconsin Counties Association, which Douglas County is considering adopting. “It really covers a lot … I was impressed.”

The ordinance covers exploration, prospecting, bulk-sampling and mining permits, operation plans, monitoring groundwater and nearby wells, tailings and waste and utility plans, an analysis of foreseeable traffic and roadway impacts, impacts on surrounding property owners and the potential economic impact of the mine. The cost to apply is $1,000 the applicant is required to deposit $50,000 with the county to cover county costs for review of the application.

“There is a copper band going through Douglas County,” Baker said.

Douglas County has a history of copper mining.  

Copper mining ended in Douglas County in the 1950s because of the cost of prospecting and poor markets. However, several mines existed along two ranges in Douglas County dating back to the mid-1800s. The northernmost range in Douglas County extended from Amnicon west to Wisconsin Highway 35 south of Pattison Park and toward western Douglas County, and the St. Croix Copper Range was in the southern part of the county.  

Baker made a motion to move the ordinance to the August committee meeting for consideration before presenting it to the Douglas County Board.

“If in fact this occurs, it will be a big deal,” Rannenberg said. “It will have an affect much greater than the non-metallic mines … the subject of non-ferrous mining is going to be a major issue for the next century.”

The Zoning Committee is slated to meet at 9 a.m. Aug. 8, and the County Board meets next at 6 p.m. Aug. 16. A copy of the draft non-ferrous mining ordinance is included in the July 10 agenda for the Zoning Committee, available at douglascountywi.org.

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