The University of Iowa

Northeast Iowa Mineral Mining - Legal Framework for State and Local Jurisdictions

College of Law students in the Community Empowerment Law Project will 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. 

A geological survey conducted by the Iowa Geological Survey, which is housed at the University of Iowa, found that an underground formation encompassing a 10-county region in northeast Iowa may have large deposits of valuable minerals, such as copper, nickel, and platinum.  As reported in IowaNow and the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the value of the minerals could be up to $1 trillion.  Additional drilling and research are necessary to make a final determination about the extent and composition of valuable mineral deposits.

While the discovery suggests that the valuable mineral deposits could be “a massive economic boon”, questions remain about the potential economic, social, and environmental impacts of mining on local communities and the State of Iowa.  The issue is further complicated by Home Rule governance that allows local jurisdictions to adopt different ordinances and regulations related to surface mining and underground mining, even as the impacts of such activities are all but certain to cross jurisdictional boundaries.   

The Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors seeks to partner with the University of Iowa to study and understand, from a legal standpoint, existing and potential safeguards against negative externalities that may come from surface and underground mining operations.  Additionally, they seek to learn about the abilities of local jurisdictions and the State of Iowa to ensure that some of the economic gains benefit impacted communities and Iowa citizens (through, for example, state severance taxes imposed on the extraction of non-renewable natural resources). 

The project would require a regional perspective and regional collaboration, extending (at least) across the 10 counties where the mineral deposits are believed to exist.  Currently, counties have varying degrees of regulation related to mining practices. 

An initial phase of research has been suggested by Winneshiek County:

A legal survey of county zoning ordinances in the area of potential mineral deposits might be a first phase of study and should scrutinize applicable state law and administrative code (e.g., IDNR permitting).  The state and counties know some things about surface mining for aggregate and underground mining for aggregate and coal.  Underground mining and surface processing of ore for precious minerals is another thing.  Where is there strength and weakness in state and county law?  What can be learned from other states?

Counties are precluded from regulating (C)AFOs and from taxing beyond express limits in Iowa Code.  County Home Rule ends at a bright line drawn around both (C)AFOs and taxes.  It is said that preclusion is justified when issues are statewide concerns.  What advantages or disadvantages might be expected if the General Assembly declared mineral mining in/under ten contiguous counties to be a statewide concern and precluded county regulation?  Or precluded local regulation because the minerals extracted for external markets are owned by our sovereign state?  It might be coupled with extraction fees, but counties might get more shaft than fees with no say or standing or "economic boon."

If state government left mine permitting to counties and a mine was established in one of them, how would adjacent counties in a mine’s footprint (of surface and ground water use for ore processing and then discharge, for example) protect their natural and cultural resources?  Above- and below-surface dimensions of an industrial mineral mine and processing and logistics might be quite extensive and cross jurisdictions having vastly different regulations.


Additional notes

In addition to the efforts by the Iowa Geological Survey, this project builds upon work previously completed the University of Iowa.  As part of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities partnership with Winneshiek County in 2014-2015, graduate students in the School of Urban & Regional Planning in Winneshiek County studied impacts of a different type of mining- frac sand mining (project link here).  The studies were essential to a process employed by Winneshiek County to develop an ordinance for regulation of surface and subsurface mining.  The ordinance was adopted in 2015.