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Towns Want to be Heard in Wisconsin's Frac Sand Mining Debate

S Bence

Senate committee vote expected today on bill dealing with sand mining and local control;  drew  crowd to  state Capitol  Monday.
The original plan would have barred local governments in Wisconsin from imposing rules on sand mine operations. The updated version would just prohibit communities from imposing new rules on existing sand mines.

A steady line of interested parties took their turn at the microphone during a public hearing on the updated bill. One party turned heads by changing its position.

Senator Tom Tiffany said he wasn’t going to put a time limit on citizen input at the hearing on his bill, and he held true to his word. Comments trailed on – free of the tick of any timer – for well over six hours.

Before the public had its chance, committee members lobbed views and concerns back and forth, among them Representative Fred Clark of Baraboo. He wondered where the bill leaves the 200-plus towns that have not enacted zoning rules on sand mines but develop concerns.

“Wouldn’t the affect of this bill be to prevent them from adopting an ordinance that would affect those businesses. In other words, they couldn’t effectively have an ordinance at all because they didn’t have one at the time that the business began operation. It seems the bill goes that far and I’m wondering if we should really go that far,” Clark says.

Senator Tom Tiffany countered.

“How far will that go then? You’re saying okay, we can change the rules here and in some instances and in some instances go so far as to put a business out of operation. Where does that stop then. I think what we’re seeing is the sand mining businesses have worked willingly with their local municipalities and have struck agreements,” Tiffany says.

A representative of the Wisconsin Counties Association stated that its mission is to maintain local control – but the organization did not take a position on the bill.

The Wisconsin Town Association planned to follow suit, but that changed just hours before the public meeting.

Executive director Rick Stadelman says the association board held an early morning conference call and it resulted in a unanimous vote to oppose the bill. He says the town leaders’ concerns include what he describes as layers of unknowns around frac sand mining.

"This is a fairly new industry – two to three years – and there’s concern I hear that we have to look at new issues – clearly the silica dust issue – only six states have silica dust standards as I understand it for neighbors that are outside of the site. There may be new issues that could come up in the future, for which with all due respect for people who say that state will take over, that the local governments may feel they want to get in sooner," Stadelman says.

The chair of one town, the Town of Oak Grove trekked to the hearing with her toddler in tow.

Sara Palodichuk lives much closer to Minneapolis than Madison but said she wanted to share her town’s story. Palodichuk says Oak Grove is located just north of a proposed frac sand project and her community proactively approved a mining ordinance.

Senator Tom Tiffany asked.why Palodichuk still felt her town was not protected

“I feel like we’re protected; I feel like we’re not heard. And I’m telling you my experience, not because I worry about Oak Grove, because I feel like we have our stuff together. But I feel like its worth other people hearing what’s going on at the town level, because in all of these other little towns you have similar issues,” Palodichuk responded.

Tiffany insists his bill does not diminish local government’s ability to use any authority it currently holds but that the mining industry needs certainty about projects.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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