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Far-reaching bill stirs conflict over who should — and can — monitor mining

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Business lobbyists faced off Thursday against advocates for the environment and local governments over a bill designed to roll back local powers to regulate sand mining, rock blasting and road building.

Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said Senate Bill 349 would remove unneeded regulation of frac sand miners, quarry operators and road contractors.

Opponents said that local residents want to be able to control health and safety in their communities, and that the current system of local government licensing of mine operators has not slowed industry growth.

Much of the focus in a public hearing Thursday was on the frac sand industry, which is mining 20 million to 25 million tons per year in Wisconsin, double the amount in 2011. When all proposed mines and processing plants are on line, the total will hit 40 million tons, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

The bill would roll back local regulation of the more than 105 existing frac sand operations and about 2,400 other non-metallic mines, at least one in every county, where stone, gravel, sand and other materials are extracted.

Only the zoning

The bill would allow local governments to use only zoning laws to regulate mines, prohibiting the use of municipal licensing or other ordinances.

That would leave 240 towns that don’t have zoning ordinances out of the equation while hobbling hundreds of other local government bodies, said Rick Stadelman, director of the Wisconsin Towns Association.

Existing local licensing agreements — in which towns can negotiate with mine companies to set standards for hours of operation, noise, road use, hazardous waste and quality of air and water — would be undone by the law, Stadelman said.

In the western Wisconsin region that has seen heavy growth of giant frac sand mines, Trempealeau County would need to do a costly rewrite of 28 conditional-use zoning permits for mines if the law passed because it also reduces the scope of local zoning powers, said Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau.

If communities can’t control sand mining, some will decide to use whatever authority they have left to stop it altogether, Danou said.

“They’ll say fine, we’ll put an end to it,” Danou said.

Bob Bingen, representing the Aggegrate Producers of Wisconsin, said there is too much regulation.

“This is a very expensive system,” Bingen said. “It is having a chilling effect on business expansion in the state.”

Towns started out licensing frac sand operations, and now are applying licensing ordinances to some gravel quarries and other smaller operations, said Richard J. Marino of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.

The regulatory actions stem from a 2012 Wisconsin State Supreme Court decision that affirmed the right of a Chippewa County town to impose licensing requirements, a ruling that can’t be allowed to stand, said Eric McLeod, an attorney with the Republican go-to law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich.

“There will be litigation in the absence of legislation to rebalance the scales,” McLeod said.

Expect backlash

Jennifer Giegerich, legislative director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said municipalities need more tools, not fewer, to control mining.

“This retroactively nullifies a whole set of health and safety ordinances that have already been enacted statewide,” Giegerich said.

As the number of Wisconsin frac sand mining operations has grown, residents have become more concerned about potentially hazardous silica dust, tainting of wells and other problems, Stadelman said.

Stadelman predicted a backlash if residents don’t feel they can rely on local government to keep them safe.

He said industry leaders have told him they don’t want to deal with local officials.

Danou said the companies would rather have the state in charge because they can get their way by spreading around campaign cash.

The bill would put environmental regulation exclusively in the hands of the DNR, but Danou said the agency is too short-handed to keep up with the frac sand industry.

Asked if the state had enough resources to adequately regulate frac sand mining, spokesman Bill Cosh said the agency would reassess its needs after hiring two new employees authorized in the latest budget.

Most of the state’s frac sand operations work under rules imposed by state permits, including 13 that sample their air emissions once every six days under DNR supervision, said state air management program bureau director Bart Sponseller.

Steven Verburg can be reached at sverburg@madison.com or 608-252-6118.

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