The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has denied a petition from 10 western Wisconsin residents asking that crystalline silica be listed as a hazardous air contaminant and specific standards for emissions be adopted.
The decision released Tuesday states that the DNR cannot comply with the petitioners’ request without making specific findings that it is unable to make. Responding in a letter from Deputy DNR Secretary Matt Moroney, the agency also defended existing regulations as sufficient to address public concerns.
Sand mines have boomed in western Wisconsin. In Chippewa County alone, there are eight planned or in operation mines.
The issue of health effects of respirable crystalline silica — microscopic sand particles that can be inhaled — has come to the public’s attention since the growth of an industry in the region that mines and processes sand to be used in fracturing oil and natural gas wells.
Tiny silica particles, created when individual grains of sand are broken apart, have long been known to be an occupational health hazard within the sand industry.
However, members of the public have raised the issue of whether such particles found in the air represent a health hazard to the general public. The petitioners asked that crystalline silica be treated as a general health hazard, but the DNR said no.
“Because silica emissions are a component of particulate matter emissions, existing regulations that govern fine particulate matter can be used to control these emissions,” Moroney wrote in the denial letter.
Moroney also said the DNR is stepping up efforts to make sure existing laws are followed.
“We are devoting 3,000 additional hours of staff time to address concerns and are aggressively reviewing applications for sand mining permits,” he said.
The petitioners, though, are not convinced that existing rules are enough.
“If we thought they were sufficient, we wouldn’t have done the petition,” said Wendy Loew of the town of Howard, one of the 10 petitioners. “As far as I’m concerned, the regulations now are not adequate.”
“There are rules to protect the workers. But there’s no agency protecting the neighbors near these mines,” said Jamie Gregar, a petitioner from Tomah who lives near a proposed mine.
“What about the kids who live and sleep and play next to a mine? I don’t want my family to be the lab rats.”
The DNR’s denial also states that it is unable to comply with the petitioners’ request under law. In order to make a finding that new standards are necessary, the DNR needs a risk assessment that incudes sources of the pollutant, an analysis showing what population groups are at risk, an evaluation of options, and a comparison of emission standards in neighboring states.
More research is needed to make such findings necessary, a DNR analysis that accompanied Moroney’s letter claims.
The analysis cites a state Department of Health Services finding of “no published evidence of health effects from intermittent or occasional off-site exposures to people living near sand mining operations.”
Further, the DNR analysis claims that to add crystalline silica to the list of hazardous air contaminants would require by administrative rule a review of approximately 100 substances already on the list, which itself could take years to accomplish.
“Even if it were possible to meet the statutory and rule requirements to move forward with promulgating a standard ... there are policy reasons for not moving forward with with such a proposal,” the analysis states. “Most importantly, existing regulations currently address these emissions.”
The DNR also noted that if it did set a standard for crystalline silica, it would apply to all sources, including agricultural plowing, not just sand mines and plants.
Ken Schmitt, a petitioner from the town of Howard and a member of the Chippewa County Board, said the DNR may be right in saying that there is insufficient evidence, but that’s why more needs to be done.
“The possibility exists that there is no hazard, but until we get some hard scientific data, we don’t know what the risk is,” Schmitt said.
The DNR dismissed the petition too easily, without finding out the real risks to the public, Schmitt added.
“I don’t think they did due diligence in addressing the concerns of the petition,” Schmitt said.
Loew sees the decision as part of a DNR tendency to set aside public concerns for business concerns.
“This is just another example of the DNR not trying to help the common people, but to help big business,” she said.
Fresh, fine silica dust is a well-documented health risk blamed for lung diseases such as silicosis, cancer and autoimmune diseases, but most published research is about workplace dangers, said David Goldberg, an expert on silica hazards and professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.
Crispin H. Pierce, an environmental public health professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said more information is needed about the risks of frac sand mining. Fresh silica dust has grains with sharp, jagged particles and is more dangerous than the weathered silica found in dirt, although it weathers quickly.
Matt Christensen of the La Crosse Tribune contributed to this story.