In small towns throughout Wisconsin, grassroots organizations are fighting against ramped up efforts to secure frac sand mining permits.
Back in the mines
Pressure is mounting on rural Wisconsin townships to permit large silica frac-sand mining operations to metastasize across the state in order to feed the destructive hydraulic fracturing process for mining natural gas and oil elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.
As of October, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported 115 permitted or proposed frac sand facilities in Wisconsin. Nearly 40 of the mines are operating. Ninety have received permits, and at least 20 more are proposed, according to the center’s WisconsinWatch.org website.
For the first time ever, a 200-acre frac sand mine is proposed for a portion of the protected lower Wisconsin riverway in the Town of Bridgeport, Crawford County, near Prairie du Chien. Typical of people all over Wisconsin, opponents and critics of frac sand mining for its environmental devastation are frustrated by outdated laws, pitiful state oversight, and corporate propaganda about job creation, health, and safety. Meanwhile, crystalline silica, a mining by-product, has been linked to lung cancer and other lung disease.
On October 11, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board tabled action on a frac sand mine permit application from Pattison Sand Co. from Clayton, Iowa. An outpouring of opposition to the mine urged the board to deny or delay action. Opponents pointed to adverse impacts the mine would have on surface and ground water, wildlife, air quality, noise, lighting, and the certainty of heavy truck traffic.
To their credit, frac sand mining critics prevailed, but perhaps only temporarily. The issue is back on the agenda for the 5 p.m. November 8, riverway board meeting at the public library in Spring Green.
“I agree that the activity [frac sand mining] is not compatible with the goals and objectives of the riverway,” said riverway board executive director Mark Cupp via phone from his Muscoda office. But, Cupp said, based on two legal opinions he’s received regarding interpretations of the statute outlining the board’s authority, the mining proposal “complies with the applicable standards” and a permit is likely to be issued.
Edie Ehlert, a coordinator with the Crawford County Stewardship Project, urged “overwhelming public opposition” to the frac sand mine in the form of letters to riverway board members, legislators, town officials, and newspapers. Calling the situation dire, Ehlert said the local authorities “are likely to cave to the pressure” from Pattison Sand Co. and set a dangerous precedent in the unique riverway if the mine is permitted. Concerns include conflicts with the riverway board mission and destruction of wildlife habitat.
Members of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board are: Mark Cupp, firstname.lastname@example.org; Bill Lundberg, email@example.com; Don Greenwood, dongreenwood48yahoo.com; Fred Madison, firstname.lastname@example.org; Gerald Dorscheid, email@example.com; Greg Greenheck, firstname.lastname@example.org; Melody Moore, email@example.com; Ritchie Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org; Ron Leys, email@example.com; and George Arimond, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since the October 11 meeting, it was suggested that the riverway board might set a moratorium on frac sand mining along the 92-mile lower Wisconsin River scenic corridor which is included under the board’s development scrutiny.
But even so, the Pattison Sand Co. application wouldn’t be covered by a new moratorium, Cupp said, because it was filed beforehand. “Once we receive the applications, we can’t change the rules,” Cupp said.
The state statute governing nonmetallic mining – Sec. 30.44(3)(e) - along the riverway seems to indicate that the riverway board’s only reason to deny a permit would be if the operation were visible from the river when the leaves are on deciduous trees. However, a rule in the Wisconsin Administrative Code – RB 2.07 (1) – states: “No person other than those engaged in mining or quarrying in the riverway on or prior to October 31, 1989, may engage in that activity in the riverway.”
Asked about the conflicting standards, Cupp said the statute was amended in the mid-1990s and the administrative rule didn’t keep up with the change in the statute, and is “sun-setted.”
However, a FAQ sheet on the state’s website clearly states that an administrative rule “has the force of law.” That poses an interesting question about the authority of the mining rule which remains in the administrative code.
Cupp said that the riverway board could question lighting problems pertaining to the permit application. Otherwise, state regulatory control over the new wave of frac sand mines is virtually non-existent with the exception of a DNR requirement that mine operators have an approved mine reclamation plan. In the Crawford County case, the Town of Bridgeport board reportedly adopted a reclamation ordinance the day before the riverway board meeting.
Nor can the riverway board regulate the anticipated increase in heavy truck traffic, since State Highway 60 is the likely route between the mine site and probable rail locations for shipping the sand out of state. Some highway alterations might be required to accommodate the heavy truck traffic.
A 100-mile stretch of Highway 60 was dedicated as a “scenic byway” in 2009. The stunning stretch of river road along the lower Wisconsin River is advertised as a tourist attraction reaching “from the Empire Prairie to the Mighty Mississippi.” Tourism in riverway communities would certainly suffer if a fleet of heavy sand trucks take to Highway 60 around the clock during tourist season.
In August, we reported a hopeful grassroots organizing campaign to establish a moratorium on frac sand mining in the Town of Hixton, Jackson County, which would have allowed time for that rural and unzoned township to approve a mining regulation ordinance.
“We’re stymied here,” reported Hixton moratorium organizer and Hixton Township resident Gaylord Oppegard when contacted October 29. The town board failed to hire an attorney to work on an ordinance, claiming the funds were needed for road repairs, Oppegard said. The issue was expected to be on the agenda at the town budget meeting this week.
But in cases like Hixton Township, mining corporations don’t even need to apply for a permit since the town hasn’t adopted a zoning ordinance, Oppegard said.
In a statement to the riverway board, the Pattison Sand Co. said silica sand “clients include oil and natural gas servicing companies, with products going to: Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, North Dakota, and Canada.”
Frac sand mining in Wisconsin would strip our state’s surface of its ancient silica sand, leaving an utterly changed landscape and polluting the environment. The sand would be shipped by rail to states listed in the Pattison proposal for use in hydraulic fracturing.
The hydraulic fracturing process, the second half of this ecological nightmare, was featured in the documentary film Gasland, showing examples of flammable tap water flowing from faucets where silica sand like that mined in Wisconsin is mixed with a toxic array of chemicals and pumped under great pressure to open cracks in underground rock formations in order to release natural gas and oil deposits.
An outpouring of public protest could help Wisconsin residents face down the mining corporations lusting after silica sand and polluting the state’s air, water, wildlife, roads, and topography.
The Spring Green Community Library - site of the riverway board meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday, November 8 - is located at 230 E. Monroe Street, in the Village of Spring Green, just off Highway 14 in southern Sauk County.
November 1, 2012
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David Giffey is a freelance journalist and FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Arena. He is the author of "Long Shadows: Veterans’ Paths to Peace" (Atwood Publishing), "Struggle for Justice: The Migrant Farm Worker Labor Movement in Wisconsin," and "The People’s Stories of South Madison."