Wisconsin's environment and the health of its population might be on the chopping block as state Republicans push for mining deregulation in the name of "jobs."
A few bills are floating around in the Wisconsin legislature that could jeopardize the state's natural resources in order to make the state more attractive to mining companies. An official mining bill is currently being drafted, led by assembly Republicans, to expedite mining permits in the state. Another bill introduced last week in both the Senate and Assembly has been dubbed the "Polluters Over People Bill," and aims to overhaul the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permitting process.
Opponents to those bills argue they could lay the groundwork for a massive iron mine, violate Wisconsin's "public trust doctrine" for publicly-owned waters, and otherwise benefit polluters by selling off the state's natural resources.
Methane Gas Industry Could Benefit From New Legislation
One of the industries that stands to benefit from this bill is the "natural" gas industry, which has staked its claim in the state in the form of sand mining. The sand mined and processed in Wisconsin is sent by rail to other areas of the country to be used in the process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" -- a controversial methane gas extraction practice that leaks toxins into area aquifers.
Wisconsin has seen a boom in permits, and approval of these permits, for frac sand mining and open-air processing plants in the past few years to coincide with the increase in the use of fracking across the country. The industry has turned to Wisconsin because the state has easily-accessible, large deposits of the sought-after silica sand ideal for fracking. These new mines and processing plants have raised concerns about the health of community members and the impacts on the local environment.
The methane gas industry has already been able to move into the state with ease because of weak local zoning laws. But the newly proposed bill could make it even easier for sand mining to expand in the state.
Bill Loosens Standards For Air Permits
While the bill primarily alters the DNR's permitting process for activities on state waters, it also changes, among other things, the process for approving air permits and high capacity wells -– two permits a company must have before it can commence sand mining and processing.
A chief concern of communities near sand mining operations is the fine particles of crystalline silica released into the air during the process. The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated this particulate to be carcinogenic to humans, and the U.S. National Toxicology Program has deemed respirable crystalline silica as a known human carcinogen.
Currently, the state does not have a standard for a safe level of crystalline silica for the air surrounding the mines or processing sites. Concerned community members have asked for stricter air permitting to more adequately address the health concerns associated with crystalline sillica. Instead, this bill takes air quality standards for mining in the opposite direction. The bill would take away the requirement that the DNR conduct "air dispersal modeling" on these categories of sand mines and processing plants.
Air dispersion modeling involves comparing existing data on mining with the specifics of the proposed mine or plant to determine the effects of emissions on the surrounding population. The modeling for sand mining looks at the particulates of sand in the air, but also emissions of sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and other hazardous elements. These byproducts can be released during processes such as hardening the sand by coating it with resin.
While not taking crystalline syllica's role as a carcinogen into account, the modeling does monitor ambient air quality for the portion of particulate matter than can be inhaled into the lungs and the emissons of these other toxins.
DNR special projects manager for sand mining permits, Thomas Woletz, told the Center for Media and Democracy that without this modeling, it is difficult to check the plant for air quality. Monitoring the particulates after the plant is built is an ineffective method.
High Capacity Well Approval Process Sped Up
The proposed legislation could also impact the sand mining industry by altering the process for receiving a high capacity well permit. High capacity wells are used during the process of washing the sand. During the permitting process, the DNR investigates how a high capacity well -- which has pump capacity of 70 or more gallons per minute -- could diminish the local watershed. The proposed legislation would give these permits automatic approval if the DNR did not finish the application by a general deadline.
Al Shea, DNR Director of the Office of Business Support and Sustainability, told the Center that the DNR does not have a reputation for frivolously granting permits, and he anticipates that if this legislation passed, the tight deadline would result in more denials than approvals.
Others worry that if this bill passed, the DNR is not properly staffed to properly complete the evaluation process with a rushed deadline, and permits could sneak through that would otherwise not be approved.
"Changes Based on Politics, Not Science"
"This legislation is clearly a grab bag of changes intended to please special interest groups," Wisconsin Democratic state Rep. Chris Danou told the Center for Media and Democracy. Danou represents a portion of West Central Wisconsin where frac sand mining has taken hold.
Mike Wiggins Jr., Bad River tribal council chairman, concerned primarily with how an iron mine in Northern Wisconsin would impact his tribe, said in a public hearing Wednesday that the proposed legislation changes are based on politics, not science.
Anne Sayers, Program Director of Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said "clearly, Governor Walker crafted this legislation to reward his well-funded supporters. Now he's asking members of his own party to risk everything by towing his line once more and voting for a bill that has proven wildly unpopular with Wisconsin voters."
Frac Sand Mining Taking Wisconsin By (Dust) Storm
Sand has long been mined in the state for production of things like roads, glass and concrete. But with the increase in demand for silica sand for use in fracking, the intensity and concentration of the new facilities has sent the state into new territory. The speed in which new companies have grabbed land for mining and processing has set communities off-guard. With proposed legislation, it looks as though companies could be able to move even faster.