New Wisconsin Bill Could Weaken Local Defense Against Frac Sand Mining

sand miningOne of the few tools for Wisconsin citizens to protect their health and land from the hazards of expanded frac sand mining across the state could be weakened by a newly introduced bill in the state legislature. The state's Senate is considering a piece of legislation today aimed at "limiting the authority" of Wisconsin cities, villages or towns to enact a "development moratorium ordinance" -- a mechanism used recently by several local governments across the state to set aside time so they can investigate the effects of proposed mining on their community.

Sand mining corporations have expanded operations in Wisconsin over the past few years, taking advantage of the lax regulations of non-metallic mining in the state. They are after the state's sand resources, which are high in silica content, for use in the controversial "natural" gas and oil extraction process of "fracking" -- which has been linked to contaminated water supplies across the country. Much of Wisconsin's sand is the ideal shape and strength -- and the state's geologic profile has made it more accessible here than in other parts of the country -- turning the state into a top targeted provider for the "natural" gas and oil industry.

Wisconsin communities have been caught off-guard as corporations have swooped in to set up shop and begin extracting and processing the sand, without very much oversight to protect the health of neighbors or to protect the natural environment. Dane County, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and the Wisconsin Farmer's Union have all lobbied against this bill. There are about 60 frac sand mines operating in Wisconsin and about 40 more which are attempting to gain permits.

Hurdles for Local Governments

For communities unfamiliar with frac sand mining, a moratorium gives citizens and local elected officials time to discuss adopting ordinances, like zoning or licensing. The local governments cannot use the moratorium to permanently or indefinitely delay the creation or expansion of a frac sand mining operation.

According to Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, this bill (SB 504) in some form has been around for about two years. The Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Wisconsin Builder's Association have been behind the push for the passage of this bill to prevent what they consider unnecessary moratoriums in the state.

"They didn't have a chance in previous sessions, but now with the Wisconsin legislature like it is, they have their chance," Witynski told the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).

The bill sets several hurdles for local governments in enacting a moratorium, including obtaining a written report from a certified engineer or health professional which would prove that a moratorium is essential in addressing public infrastructure or safety concerns.

Rob Kovach, chief of staff for state Sen. Frank Lasee (R-DePere), who introduced the bill, told CMD that the bill was not intended to target sand mining moratoriums and asserted that the bill would not affect a local government's ability to prevent a sand mine and processing facility from coming into their community through the use of permitting and licensing. But this bill could have an impact on townships without zoning ordinances which see a sudden rise in permits for sand mining -- a situation where a moratorium could give the local governments needed time to work through local zoning ordinances.

"It's better that development projects are considered on a case-by-case basis, rather than enacting a moratorium," he opined.

"These Moratoriums Are Not Frivolous"

Regions of Wisconsin and Minnesota where frac sand mining have already started have seen complaints about air quality, water degradation, and the destruction of the natural landscape.

"While this bill wouldn't make it impossible for local governments to enact moratoriums, it adds additional hassles and fees [to experts] that they don't have the resources for," Kara Slaughter, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, told CMD. "These moratoriums are not frivolous, these towns and cities need this time to learn about what sand mining will mean for their communities. This bill is a real concern."

*The above photograph comes from Shutterstock Images.