DECORAH — Valuable minerals potentially worth $1 trillion could exist deep below the surface of Northeast Iowa, and Winneshiek County officials want to be prepared for the repercussions large-scale mining activities could have on the area.
The Board of Supervisors last week unanimously OK’d an agreement to have University of Iowa law students conduct a study to help officials in Winneshiek County and Northeast Iowa understand the implications of anticipated mineral mining activities, as well as legal safeguards for environmental protection and transfer of wealth.
The county will pay the Office of Outreach and Engagement $1,000 for the study.
In 2015, following concerns over frac-sand mining, the supervisors made an ordinance that prohibits subsurface mining. Winneshiek County Supervisor Dean Thompson was heavily involved in the research behind the ordinance and brought the proposal to hire the law students for the mining study to the rest of the board.
There are only about two or three large companies in the world that do the type of mining that would be necessary to extract the valuable minerals that could be 2,000 feet underground.
“It’s a huge enterprise … we’re not talking about a few guys with a backhoe,” Thompson said.
While he believes Winneshiek County is in “good shape” with its ordinance, he acknowledged any ordinance can be challenged. In addition, he noted the state bars counties from regulating confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), removing any local control over those industrial operations. County governments fear the state could do the same with mining, he said.
A survey conducted by the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa found that an underground formation encompassing a 10-county region in Northeast Iowa – including Winneshiek County – may have large deposits of valuable minerals such as copper, nickel and platinum. These minerals are used for everything from catalytic converters and hydrogen fuel cells to the batteries that power nearly all electronic devices.
Geologists have compared the deposits in Iowa to the Duluth Complex in Minnesota, a formation of minerals worth billions of dollars.
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“Understandably, some Iowans and elected officials are hopeful about the ‘massive economic boon’ that mining could bring to the Northeast counties and the state. Others are concerned about the social and environmental consequence of mining, including an influx of temporary workers, increased road use and truck traffic, air and water pollution and the destruction of the natural landscape and the tourism industry,” said a summary of mining issues prepared by a University of Iowa School of Law faculty member, based on Thompson’s proposal for the study.
While a mine cannot be opened in Winneshiek County, due to the county’s ordinance prohibiting subsurface mining, the effects of any mine will reach much farther than the mine’s footprint, according to Thompson.
“The issue is further complicated because not only does the mineral formation cross the boundaries of 10 counties, unlike the Duluth Complex, which is almost entirely on public lands, the Northeast Iowa formation is under privately owned land,” the summary stated.
And although Iowa’s “Home Rule” law allows local jurisdictions to adopt different ordinances and regulations related to surface mining and underground mining, many counties have not exercised that authority.
“Winneshiek County has chosen to prohibit mining within its borders, but it still has regional concerns. The primary concern is maintaining local control of mining-related issues, including ensuring each county makes an informed decision about permitting or prohibiting mining operations, and, if mining occurs, having local laws and policies in place to keep the economic benefit of mining in local communities,” the project summary said.
“Iowa, unlike Wisconsin or Minnesota, does not impose a road-use tax, yet mining will cause an exponential increase in road use by trucks. Similarly, Minnesota and other states impose excise taxes on extracted minerals, but Iowa does not have a tax that would apply to the Northeast (Iowa mineral) deposit. Consequently, much of the ‘economic boon’ would flow out of state.”
“If money interests come in and want to try to develop a mine, shouldn’t we as citizens profit when our resources are extracted and exported out of state? Absent extraction fees for minerals extracted for export out of the counties and state, only the mining company and owner of minerals rights would profit directly. An extraction fee must be established by the state — counties are precluded for doing so,” Thompson said.
Without road maintenance fees charged against mining truck traffic on county roads and bridges, county taxpayers would be paying for excessive road and bridge deterioration caused by mining, he added.