Leaders Balance Demands as Proposed Frac Sand Mines Queue Up
Stop in at a town or county meeting in western Wisconsin, and frac sand mining is likely to top the agenda - namely, balancing the demands of a mining operation with concerns of residents.Frac sand mining might feel remote to those of us living in southeastern Wisconsin, but for residents west and north, the industry is close to home.
Companies are clamoring to purchase the region's perfectly spherical and highly resilient sand, because it's a key ingredient in the process of extracting oil and natural gas.
We end our journey today with a look at how local government is balancing the boom and the concerns.
Fifty people test the capacity of a small conference room in the basement of the Trempealeau County Courthouse. Their mixed views are on quiet display. Some wear "I support sand" T-shirts, while others bear signs reading, "NO FRAC SAND."
The Environment and Land Use Committee is about to vote on a proposed sand mine just north of here. Right now, the 183-acre site holds farmland and scattered woods. Land Management Director Kevin Lien reminds the applicants of their responsibilities to monitor air quality, manage their wastewater and just plain – be a good neighbor.
" I think if you are a small property owner, living right next to a mine site, you probably are going to be adversely affected and who is going to buy that property," Lien says.
There is some debate among committee members: the mining company wants a 25-year permit. Lien stands firm – the county standard is five.
"At any given time the zoning administrator or the applicant could come back before this committee to have any of these conditions modified, if we don't have any issues with that site, they could come back in at 5 years and say, we've done everything we told you we'd do, we're the good land steward, we're the good neighbor, we've complied with all this things," Lien says.
When it comes time to vote, the call is not Lien's, but the committee's. With two votes against, the panel grants the permit. Later, at the other end of the building, Lien shows me the future mining site on wall map outside his office.
"It's right here on the map," Lien says.
He tells me the company formed just six months ago.
"Paramount Sand developed March of 2012. The two primary gentlemen who are running are real estate brokers from Arizona that have family ties in this area – and it is his uncle's property," Lien says.
Lien says, a year ago, he anticipated Trempealeau County would be home to two or three large-scale mining operations - tops.
"After today we issued our 21st industrial sand mining permit 12 cut 5 We have 15 more that are rumored to be coming and we're reviewing four more are on our desk now, so we haven't seen the end of it , or a slow down by any means," Lien says.
Yet, Lien says county government did not enter the permitting frenzy completely unprepared. Trempealeau adopted a mining ordinance in 1996. " Because prior to the industrial sand industry coming here, we have 50 some permitted sand and gravel pits that are used for construction," Lien says. Lien believes the guidelines still hold up, but admits managing a 10-acre gravel pit is a far cry from a 500 acre frac sand operation.
" We've made some mistakes along the way for show. I think we're holding the mining companies more accountable. I got scolded a little bit by my committee chairman at one point and time when I told a company that I'm more of a show me. So don't stand up there and tell me you're the next best thing to Trempealeau County but show me you are, until then I kind of feel like you're lying to me – because I've seen it in the past," Lien says.
Lien is still smarting from a mine's failed storm water plan. A river of muddy sediment engulfed a nearby home.
Dan Fedderly views the complexity of frac sand mines through the eyes of an engineer. His specialty is evaluating the impact of heavy truck traffic on local roads. Fedderly lives in neighboring Dunn County, and he's worn a number of hats - including that of county supervisor. He now helps ‘sand belt' towns design ordinances and negotiate contracts with mining companies.
"Because of the magnitude of activity that they bring – that's the key – this has been without question the biggest test of their ability to handle the regulatory oversight that is vested in them and to do it in a reasonable, responsible and successful manner, no question about it," Fedderly says.
Fedderly says he observes the same mining concerns in every community.
"You'll see in the Dunn County ordinance the concern happens to come from the waste material that's hauled back to the site. When they process the sand, they clean it and they use the chemical – these polyacrylamides to clean it. Now the industries perspective is that these break down naturally and that there is no concern about it. The problem we have in accepting that, is that there is no history of this magnitude of use and whether they break down," Fedderly says.
Fedderly says Dunn County's proposed ordinance requires mining companies to follow a detailed waste storage plan and monitoring protocol.
"There are those in the industry that may argue that that's overly burdensome, overly regulatory, and my perspective is, no it's not," Fedderly says.
Back in his land management office, Director Kevin Lien is being asked to revisit Trempealeau County's nonmetallic mine ordinance. He says industry is pressuring leaders to ease restrictions. Yet both Lien and Dan Fedderly express a greater concern – that the Legislature could step in and establish uniform frac sand mining regulations. The two men adamantly insist a "one size fits all" approach could be devastating.