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A joint legislative committee public hearing on a bill designed to weaken local government control over sand mines drew crowds in Madison, Wisconsin on Monday. Before the hearing ended, over seven hours of testimony had been heard from industry officials, local leaders and concerned citizens from around the state.
The original legislation — Senate Bill 349 — would have barred local governments in Wisconsin from imposing rules on all sand mine operations. The updated version under discussion Monday — Senate Bill 63 — was scaled back slightly to just prohibit communities from imposing new rules on existing sand mines, leaving them free to regulate new sand mines.
The reworked bill, authored by Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) hopes to limit the impact of a 2012 State Supreme Court decision that ruled towns could regulate sand mining operations with their zoning ordinances and their general police powers
Wisconsin is the nation’s number one producer of sand used in hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique used to extract oil and natural gas. There are more than 124 permitted or operational frac sand mines, processing plants, and rail loading facilities in the state, as Wisconsin sand mines have tried to keep pace with the fracking boom.
Despite the toned-down newer version of the bill, the proposed legislation still drew strong opposition from local governments and environmental groups concerned about the impacts of mining on air quality, water, road use and reclamation. Of particular concern are increased levels of crystalline silica dust in the air. This dust is considered a carcinogen.
“This is a fairly new industry – two to three years – and there’s concern I hear that we have to look at new issues – clearly the silica dust issue – only six states have silica dust standards,” said Rick Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association at the hearing. “There may be new issues that could come up in the future, for which with all due respect for people who say that state will take over, that the local governments may feel they want to get in sooner.”
The Wisconsin Town Association came out strongly against the bill on Monday after a unanimous vote of opposition by its members.
“The frac sand industry is hardly in need of special treatment,” Dave Blouin, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter’s mining committee, wrote in remarks submitted to the committee. “The bill is a free pass for mining companies from ever having to deal with rule changes … even if public health and safety are threatened by the mining operation.”
The Wisconsin DNR has issued 22 notices of permit violations against 21 operations since November 2011. The vast majority of notices were for stormwater permit violations. In December and January, the state Department of Justice announced settlements in three sand mine cases. The sand mine companies will pay $360,000 to settle claims brought by state regulators.
Supporters of the bill say that the industry needs regulatory certainty to thrive, and that certainty will be gravely threatened if local officials can regulate away businesses.
Currently, Republicans control both the Senate and the Assembly in Wisconsin, but the two-year legislative session ends next month, so the bill’s prospects are uncertain.