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Local Governments Fear Being Cut Out of Mining Regulations; Bill Seeks Uniformity

Wisconsin has another divisive piece of legislation on its hands. It spells out local communities' role in  regulating mines.

Advocates say the bill places regulation where it belongs – in the hands of the state. Critics say the bill strips local government of its charge to protect residents’ health and safety.

The Assembly has put it off action until spring. But plenty of people expressed opinions Thursday when a Senate committee listened to public input.

Over the last three years, sand mining has exploded in central and western reaches of Wisconsin.

Senator Tom Tiffany says he wants to free the companies involved from what he calls a cumbersome patchwork of local regulations.

“What we’re trying to do is to set parameters so that local units of government know what tools they can use and what they cannot use,” Tiffany says.

What they can use, he says, is zoning – decide how industries can use land. But what the senator says local leaders cannot do is set up rules around the use of explosives for a mining operation; or regulate water and air quality.

Trempeauleau County recently imposed a moratorium on new mines, until leaders there determine possible air quality impacts on nearby residents. Tiffany calls moving into the environmental sphere, out of bounds.

“Some communities are trying to set up their own mini department of natural resources and environmental regulation for air and water should be conducted the state regulatory agency – the Department of Natural Resources. That way there is consistency across the state,” Tiffany says.

“I’ve read the bill several times and it takes away a lot of existing county’s ability – things we have in place.”

That's Kevin Lien. He heads Trempeauleau County’s land management department and argues it is equipped to regulate.

“We have a lot of wetland in the county, we have a lot of floodplain issues and we try to protect those environmentally significant areas. We have a lot of class one trout streams in the county too. And if you’ve ever been out to mine sites no two mines are the same; I would argue no two counties are the same, we all have very unique, specific environmental issues,” Lien says.

He points out that thirty frac sand operations have been proposed in his county, and it has okayed 28 of 30.

Rich Budinger agrees that nobody knows the LAND better than the county or town – in terms of its vision for the future. But Budinger says when local leaders step into other matters, they can confuse the public.

Budinger works for Fairmount Minerals. It operates three frac sand mines northwest of Trempeauleau.

“I’ll have conversations with people and I’ll ask them, what is that is scaring you about this industry, and they’ll site something that they’ve read off the internet and it’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there. The common theme has been essentially unwarranted fear of an industry that’s been in place for decades that is very strictly regulated,” Budinger says.

Despite industry assurances, Monica Vitek hasn’t stopped worrying about the future of her family’s beef and dairy farm. She lives a mile below a proposed iron mine in far northern Wisconsin.

The proposed law sweeps beyond the world of sand mining.

“And our well is a very good well – we are tested four times a year. But if they go down 1,000 feet and our well only goes down 150. So we won’t have water and then we’re going to have all of the crap flying through the air,” Vitek says.

Vitek feels turning to state government for help would be fruitless - a sentiment that troubles Rob Ricigliano. He specializes in conflict resolution around the globe and sees concerning symptoms at play in Wisconsin.

“Internationally you see the defining characteristic in many conflicts are local communities that feel marginalized. And usually we see these in places where they’ve never really had a strong tradition of a representative democracy. The history that we sort of take for granted here,” Ricigliano says.

Wisconsin’s proposed Regulatory Certainty Act has slowed somewhat in the Legislature. The Assembly has just put off action until spring.

As for Thursday’s public hearing, Senator Tom Tiffany hopes everyone takes a deep breath. He says he’s open to change, as long as it does not harm the integrity of his bill.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.