Written by John Robinson
Late last year, the Wisconsin Legislature enacted legislation that eliminated the moratorium on non-ferrous metallic mining in Wisconsin. Due to concerns expressed by Marathon County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs and others, the legislature agreed to delay the effective date of the repeal until July 1, 2018. This created an opportunity for counties, such as Marathon, to enact local zoning regulations to regulate this type of mining within towns served by County zoning.
Given the interest in mining in Marathon County, primarily associated with the “Reef deposit” in the Town of Easton, the staff at the Conservation, Planning, & Zoning Department, along with Scott Corbett, the Corporation Counsel, worked closely with the Land Conservation and Zoning Committee to develop a zoning ordinance that would regulate non-ferrous metallic mining.
Marathon County has long been the leader in the regulation of mining activities, being one of the first counties to regulate non-metallic mining associated with sand and gravel pits.
Those regulations go back to the late 1980s and led to the development of standards that result in the regulation of the reclamation of the land after the mining activities occur.
One of the concerns associated with the mining in a sulfide deposit, such as the Reef deposit, is the potential long-term environmental impacts associated with the release of sulfuric acid when the deposit is exposed to air and/or water. Supporters of mining have pointed out the economic benefits associated with mining in terms of jobs created. With that backdrop, Marathon County began efforts to develop a comprehensive approach to addressing mining while evaluating the economic benefits and protecting the general welfare, human health, and safety of the residents of the County.
Counties are created by the state legislature and therefore must operate under express authority granted to them. In this case, the underlying authority comes under Chapter 59 of the Wisconsin Statutes and rises out of our ability to impose conditions on land use through zoning regulations. Concerns were expressed throughout the process of developing the local ordinance that the County needed to operate within the authority granted to it. Considering the Legislature’s express decision to eliminate the moratorium, the County’s ability to impose a moratorium of its own was limited.
On April 10, the Marathon County Board unanimously approved both the metallic mining ordinance and the creation of a Metallic Mining Committee. The ordinance sets up a process under which the operations of any proposed mine will be subject to a conditional use permit in the General Agricultural zoning district in towns that have adopted the County Zoning Code. In order for any metallic mining to occur, an application would need to be submitted to the County, which would be reviewed by the Marathon County Board of Adjustment with input from the public and the Metallic Mining Committee at a public hearing.
The County’s review of the application for a conditional use permit under the ordinance is concurrent with a review by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) of a state mining permit application required by Chap. 293, Wisconsin Statutes, to determine if the operations can be safely done in the County. An applicant would need to submit a $50,000 application fee to cover the County’s cost associated with the review of the permit, corresponding studies and hydrologic investigations; and the cost associated with granting of the permit. The applicant would also need to place money in the following:
- Groundwater Trust Fund — To pay for the cost associated with replacing any contaminated, damaged, or depleted wells and/or providing potable water to the owner of any impacted well over the next 100 years.
- Political Subdivisions Compensation Fund — To cover the cost associated with impacts on the local governments in the communities associated with the mining activity.
- Property Value Compensation Fund — To protect neighboring property values from the negative impacts associated with mining.
- Road Damage Compensation Fund — To pay for the cost associated with repairs to local roads that are damaged by the mining activities.
In addition, the ordinance spells out that the applicant must name the County and other political subdivisions as additional insured on their insurance policies and establishes minimum coverage thresholds.
Marathon County’s goal is to work cooperatively with the applicant, as well as with the Wisconsin DNR, to review the impacts of the mining prior to making a decision on the conditional use permit. Conditions set by the County will also include a buffer zone around the entire mining operation and setbacks from lakes, rivers, streams, public lands, private water supplies, and a number of other items, as well as compliance with State environmental regulations.
The duties and responsibilities of the Metallic Mining Committee — which will be comprised of 7 members representing the Marathon County Board, local government, and citizens — include:
- Making recommendations to the Environmental Resources Committee relative to policies affecting metallic mining.
- Providing recommendations to the DNR on the scope of studies and information needed as part of the application process.
- Developing a plan of action to address mining-induced growth problems.
- Facilitating communication between the Committee, local governmental units, and the applicant.
- Reviewing, commenting, and acting on proposed reclamation plans.
- Working with local governments and the applicant to negotiate a local agreement to address items of concern.
While this ordinance deals exclusively with the regulation of the mining operations, the County will be working on developing additional regulations as they relate to prospecting and the collection of bulk samples associated with the exploration for mining activities between now and July 1, 2018.
A sincere thank-you is in order to all those who stepped up to speak during the approximately 6 hours of public comment at public hearings of the Land Conservation and Zoning Committee and to all those who submitted written comments for review by the Marathon County Board and committees so that an informed decision could be made on this matter.
Marathon County Board Supervisor | District 4
John Robinson is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 4. Initially elected at age 18, he was the youngest member of the County Board, representing District 2 from 1974 to 1981. From 1981 to 1988, he served as a member of the Wisconsin Assembly, representing the 85th Assembly District. He then served as Mayor of Wausau from 1988 to 1992. Since leaving the office of Mayor, John has worked on environmental projects, serving as a supervisor in the DNR’s Remediation & Redevelopment Program. He and his wife Mary enjoy travelling, walking through the Downtown Wausau area, and kayaking on the Wisconsin River. Email John Robinson.
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