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As Frac Sand Mining Expands, Community Activists Face Off Against Companies

It is up to Wisconsin communities to fight off powerful interests in frac sand mining.

Wisconsin frac sand mining. This is the conveyor belt that carries the sand from the surface mining pits to processing and where the rail cars will arrive to carry it out of the state. (Photo: carol mitchell / Flickr)

Some mornings, Patricia Popple of Chippiwa County, Wisconsin, has to wipe dust off her car before she can drive anywhere. On other days, worried neighbors call her to say that dust has settled on the nearby school.

Down the road, Victoria Trinko, a family farmer, has been diagnosed with environmentally induced asthma. In order to breathe properly, she uses an inhaler and nasal spray twice a day.

The fine dust coating Popple’s car, the school and Trinko’s airways is a product of frac sand mining, a relatively unknown industry essential to the fracking boom. Sand found in hills across the country, but particularly in the Midwest, is used as a natural “proppant.” It helps to keep holes borne by water and chemicals open so that gas and oil can come out.

Wisconsin acts as the heart of the industry, with sands mined in the state making up 75 percent of the US market. As fracking increases, frac sand mining has, too: From 2009 to 2012, the demand for frac sand tripled. Estimates of total sand mined in 2014 are expected to be 30 percent higher than 2013 totals.

Popple has become a dedicated anti-frac sand activist as she’s watched her community and state transform. Six years ago, when Popple first learned about proposals to open frac sand mining facilities in Chippiwa County, there were only four sites in Wisconsin. Today, 140 have been developed, with handfuls more in the works. Wisconsin alone is expected to soon mine 50 million tons of frac sands each year, equivalent to 9,000 semi-truck loads.

These days, Popple tells Truthout, there are “piles of dust” on railroad tracks, which makes its way into local communities when trains go past. The air is thick with it in the boiling hot summers.

Popple and others are worried about the impact all that dust is having on their lives. And without strong oversight from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), they have little way of knowing. The DNR doesn’t require companies to monitor levels of airborne crystalline silica dust, a byproduct of mining and a known carcinogen. Heavy exposure can scar tissue and lead to chronic pulmonary problems, heart problems, kidney disease and autoimmune disorders.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has found several cases where workplace crystalline silica levels at some of Wisconsin’s frac sand sites are higher than what is allowed under national law.”. Researchers from the University of Iowa are now measuring crystalline silica dust in Wisconsin communities near frac sand sites to better understand whether widespread exposure is also occurring.

Despite publicly noting the potential hazards of crystalline silica exposure, the DNR refused requests from Pierce and others that the agency categorize airborne crystaline silica as a dangerous substance that needs to be monitored.

DNR also doesn’t require monitoring of something called fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 for short. That’s a measurement for particles 2.5 micrometers and smaller – smaller than the width of human hair – that are common in industrial sites. PM2.5 can come from different kinds of substances – sand, carbon and diesel exhaust, you name it.

Dr. Crispin Pierce of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire has been measuring PM2.5 levels at 15 Wisconsin frac sand sites over the last five years. As frac sand mining, processing and everything that comes with it, such as truck and train traffic, have increased, so too have the levels of fine particulate matter.

While the federal Environmental Protection Agency suggests that levels remain below 12, some sites had levels up to 50. The EPA and World Health Organization are both concerned about PM2.5 levels because they can easily get into lungs, potentially causing heart and respiratory problems. “The levels we’re measuring around frac sand plants . . . are higher than backgrounds levels,” Pierce tells Truthout. “We’re concerned about the long-term health effects, cardiovascular risk, bronchitis and things like that.”

DNR only requires companies to monitor emission of bigger particulates, not PM2.5. And Pierce says that only 10 percent of companies are actually required by the DNR to comply with these weak regulations.

The DNR’s foot-dragging is the result of poor leadership and gutted laws. Cathy Stepp was appointed DNR Secretary in 2010, despite having previously called the agency “anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes” and having toured Wisconsin as a state senator as part of a legislative committee seeking out criticism of the DNR.

According to the agency website,” Stepp notes her administration is concentrating on . . . simplifying permitting to accomplish Gov. Scott Walker’s goals to create jobs in Wisconsin.” For his part, in 2013, Walker signed a mining law, AB1/SB1, which significantly lessens environmental regulations, expedites mining permitting and diminishes DNR oversight. The law has allowed companies to receive mining permits they otherwise wouldn’t have, had older, more stringent regulations been in effect.

Lax regulations at the state level mean that oversight and monitoring is left to local government instead. Many Wisconsin towns have historically been un-zoned, meaning landowners can sign deals directly with companies. To restrict and monitor frac sand mining and processing, some towns enacted local licensing ordinances detailing how and where operations can take place. Because the county or state governments can’t challenge local oversight, local governments, pushed by their constituents, have been able to restrict and regulate frac sand mining beyond what the weak DNR is doing.

“People have formed groups to try to help [local government] formulate ways to stop or at least to get local groups to say no to frac sand mining or processing plants,” says Popple.

While local concerns are paramount, Popple and others are increasingly looking at the industry that frac sand mining fuels. “When you hear about people in North Dakota and Wyoming and Kansas dealing with fracking, you realize this isn’t just a local problem or a county problem or a state problem, it’s a national and international problem.”

But local government doesn’t always have the expertise, or political will, needed to enforce the ordinances. “Local governments have found it really difficult to safely permit these operations, let alone monitor them for issues and problems,” Dave Blouin, mining committee chair of Wisconsin’s chapter of the Sierra Club, tells Truthout.

Local oversight leads to other problems. This mix of zoned and un-zoned land and differing local regulations has created a regulatory patchwork across the state, resulting in companies finding holes to exploit. Take the Texas-based company Hi Crush, which recently requested that the city of Blair, Wisconsin, annex property from the adjacent town of Preston.

“The city of Blair does not have the same regulations that [Preston] does,” says Popple. “There are no regulations there. If there’s a nuisance for dust or there’s stormwater overflow onto somebody’s property, there are no citations issued and no fines.

“Weak regulations in a town or municipality make it a [good] way for the company to get away with violations. They don’t have to follow the same regulations that another town or county might have. “

A letter sent from Hi Crush to Blair and obtained by Truthout shows that the company is trying to sweeten the annexation deal for Blair, offering $1.5 million upfront, $500,000 of which would be earmarked to “provide incentives” to local businesses, which could be adversely impacted, and another $1 million to be used at the city’s will. Hi Crush also offered a $500,000 “grant” to the local school district.

Hi Crush is not alone. According to the Land Stewardship Project, between 2011 and 2014, at least 19 companies “[abused] the annexation process to avoid regulations.” The project also estimates that 51 percent of the companies operating in the state have “seriously violated [DNR’s] regulations, manipulated local governments, or engaged in influence peddling and conflicts of interest.”

Recognizing their importance in keeping mining efforts at bay, and the problems with relying solely on local control to restrict industry, local regulations have been the target of both pro-mining and anti-mining advocates. In recent years, pro-mining state legislators have attempted to pass two laws aiming to restrict local oversight. Both failed, but campaigners are worried that further attempts will take place when the new session starts in January.

Environmental campaigners, for their part, are pushing for more oversight from the DNR. The Sierra Club has called for a moratorium on all new sand mine permits until the state conducts a comprehensive study of state and local regulatory framework.

Pierce is hopeful that his work can make an impact. “I would like to think that . . . because we’re finding things that may be of concern, we could prompt DNR to do more monitoring.” He says that could be a “win-win” for companies and concerned residents, with companies being able to prove that their operations aren’t as bad as people may fear, and residents being able to push for mitigation when necessary. Pierce says that simply requiring monitoring of PM2.5 levels could offer information on the amount of small particulate and crystalline silica dust.

Inspiration for Iowa

The leveraging of local legislation in Wisconsin has spurred similar efforts in Iowa. After a small handful of local landowners learned that mining had been proposed in Allamakee county, they lobbied local government to pass a moratorium that would stall efforts while regulations on frac sand mining were drafted. According to David Osterberg of the Iowa Policy Project, the final regulations, which went into effect last July, are some of the strictest in the country – so strict that no company, at least for the foreseeable future, will attempt to mine there.

Iowa’s Winneshiek county also passed a moratorium on all frac sand mining efforts, which is set to expire in October 2015. Residents there are also pushing for an ordinance to strictly control any mining that does take place. In Clayton county, meanwhile, one company is already mining.

Like Wisconsin, local governments are up against a conservative state government. In 2014, Governor Terry Branstad vetoed $11 million in spending on monitoring and improving water quality, despite the budget line item being passed by a harshly divided legislature. Water is a key natural resource potentially affected by frac sand mining, of particular concern in Iowa, where 75 percent of the state’s population relies on groundwater for drinking. Brandstad also vetoed $9 million in funding that could have been used to protect the state’s natural environment. Osterberg notes that the state government has historically overturned local regulations on hot-button issues like factory farming, and campaigners are worried that similar moves could happen for frac sand mining, too.

While Iowa has been successful in halting frack sand mining in the state for now, Wisconsin continues to face an uphill battle. Community and environmental campaigners are worried that state-level efforts to block local control will once again be proposed when the new legislature goes into session in January.

Pierce continues to battle, too. When he showed the abstract for his most recent study to a colleague at the DNR, he was told, “I look forward to reading the full paper” – which will only be published in November 2015. “They’re a little bit wait and see, and that’s a little bit disappointing,” says Pierce. “I’d like the DNR to do more.”

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