By Rebecca Kemble on October 25, 2013

The frac sand mining industry faced off with dozens of Wisconsin citizens on Thursday as the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue held a public hearing on a bill that would severely limit local governments' abilities to protect their communities against the harmful health and environmental effects of frac sand and other non-metallic mining activities.

Mining for sand used to extract natural gas and oil in the hydraulic fracturing process has become a serious concern to residents of western and central Wisconsin, who have seen the industry grow from five mines before 2010 to 110 with 65 processing facilities in 2013.

Increased heavy truck traffic, toxic silica dust blown into homes, schools and farms, explosive blasting, contaminated groundwater, dwindling water supplies, and light and noise pollution from processing plants have prompted some municipalities to protect their interests with zoning changes, ordinances and mining moratoria.

Wisconsin's frac sand mines account for 75% of the market nationwide. With the demand for what is the most pristine and abundant supply of this super fine, round sand grains sharply increasing, mining companies and the natural gas and oil industries behind them are worried that local regulation of their activities will thwart their ability to expand and intensify gas extraction elsewhere.

Senator Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) circulated the proposed bill for co-sponsorship last week, and it was formally introduced as SB 349 on Tuesday. The bill eliminates the ability of the 240 townships in the state that do not have zoning regulations to use ordinances backed up by police enforcement powers to ensure that mining operations don't harm public health and safety.

Wisconsin Senate Committee

SB 349 also severely limits local governments' ability to collect on damages to roads, prohibits any local regulation of blasting activities other than establishing a schedule, and prohibits the Department of Natural Resources from creating nonmetallic mining reclamation air and water standards that are more restrictive than current law.

The bill would also retroactively nullify agreements already made between local governments and mining companies, and would invalidate an untold number of local ordinances.

Well over 100 people showed up to testify at the 9 1/2 hour-long hearing on Thursday. Mining industry representatives, their lobbyists and people representing non-profit environmental and civic groups took up the first two-thirds of the hearing. Individual citizens, including the President of the Ho Chunk Nation, were made to sit for over 6 hours before their turn came to speak. By that point most members of the press had left the room. None of the individual citizens in attendance testified in favor of the bill.

"This day could be called entertainment if the consequences to the people of Wisconsin were not so serious," Bruce Noble, who called the scene "political theatre that runs to farce," told the committee. Noble expressed the widely-shared sentiment that the supporters of SB 349 seemed more concerned about protecting the business interests of the frac sand mining companies than in protecting the health and safety of the people of Wisconsin.

Republican backers of the bill couldn't untangle themselves from the twisted web of ideological contradiction created by a proposal that hobbles local government control, while also promoting zoning laws and the role of state DNR regulators, whom they have hitherto railed against.

Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempeleau), who represents the county hardest hit by the frac sand mining boom, offered his hypothesis: "I know why this is happening here. It's because local communities don't need the kind of campaign cash that the industry spreads around, so they come to the Capitol and get their work done here."

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who received more than $35,000 in direct campaign donations from the natural gas and frac sand mining industries between 2007 and 2012, took offense at Danou's remark saying, "It's an affront to suggest that campaign donations are affecting our public policy. Don't impugn us when we're trying to do what's best for the state."

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma), who also hails from western Wisconsin, described how the communities she represents are being overrun with out-of-state mining companies. "I've seen the big pick-up trucks with Texas license plates," she said. "I've heard the lawyers from the oil and natural gas industry. I see what's happened to the DNR. If you want them to regulate the mines, maybe you need to add some inspectors."

As it is, the DNR does not have the staffing capacity to adequately monitor frac sand mine operations. Their staff is tied up with the work of permitting them. In 2012 the DNR cited or wrote warning letters to 20% of the existing frac sand mining operations for regulatory violations, but that was only because members of the public and local governments complained and performed the initial investigations.

Even as legislative Republicans are telling the public that they should trust the DNR to look after the interests of clean air and water, at the same time they are writing other bills and supporting rules changes that curtail the DNR's regulatory powers. The day before the SB 349 hearing, the DNR Board approved changes to the rules governing Environmental Impact Studies and environmental reviews, reducing the level of public input into the process and eliminating the need for them entirely in some cases.

Mining protester

Frac sand mine operators, their lobbyists and their legislative supporters all seemed to be reading off the same script during the hearing, repeating the words, "regulatory certainty," "jobs," and very consciously using the term "industrial sand" rather than "frac sand." Though they didn't say the word "eco-terrorist," Sen. Tiffany and Scott Manley, the vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, both raised that scary specter by suggesting any opposition to frac sand mining was the work of national anti-fracking and anti-fossil fuel groups stirring up the locals.

By the time the general public got a chance to testify, they didn't hold back. Many were more blunt than Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar), who diplomatically said, "When people lose their voice, that's more frightening than the presence of a mine, and that's what's at stake here."

Several people even used the term "fascist" to describe the fusion of corporate and state power embodied in the proposal. Michael Touton put it this way: "This governing body is best described as political prostitutes doing the bidding of frac sand miners."

Members of the Ho Chunk Nation tribal government were vehement in their opposition to the bill. President Jon Greendeer said, "Frac sand mining is an insidious industry affecting health, roadways, and aesthetics. Its first victim is our very democracy."

David Greendeer, Ho Chunk Nation Distrtict 2 legislator, evoked the history of violent resource extraction in the region. "Back in the 1800s with the lead mine rush, we were being removed. We fought to get back. And now what we're dealing with here is the rezification of the rest of the state." He then looked around and declared to all the non-indigenous people in the room, "Welcome to the rez!"

Republican leadership in the Assembly has indicated that they will not be taking up SB 349 until next year, and two Republican senators have said they cannot support the bill as written. Sen. Tiffany and industry representatives will likely be going back to the drawing board to work on amendments before it comes up for a vote.

Featured photo: Flickr user PJ Rey, creative commons licensed. Story photos: Rebecca Kimble.

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