Wisconsin Orders Up ‘Frac Sand’ Study in Response to Petition

Explosive growth of the frac sand industry has made the state No. 1 in the nation, raising health concerns and sparking activism.

More than 1,100 Wisconsin residents signed a petition urging regulators to study the impacts of its frac sand mining boom, and the state agreed. Environmental advocate is demanding an "honest analysis," not a "paper exercise." Credit: Frac sand processing facility in Wisconsin/Jim Tittle

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Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources will soon study the myriad impacts of the state’s frac sand boom, thanks in part to a petition written by the green group Midwest Environmental Advocates.

The last major state review of the industry was published in January 2012. Until now, regulators have denied repeated requests from concerned citizens for an updated version.

An environmental advocate presented the petition, with over 1,100 signatures, to the state’s Natural Resources Board on Oct. 29. Three months later, the board directed the Department of Natural Resources to complete a new frac sand study, called a “strategic analysis,” and cited the petition as one of the reasons.

Sarah Williams, a Midwest Environmental Advocates lawyer who helped write the successful petition, was pleased—and “very surprised”—by the decision.

The next step, said Williams, is ensuring “this isn’t just a paper exercise and the DNR provides an honest analysis.” She said she hopes the 28-page petition collected from communities statewide is used as the study’s starting point.

Members of industry have also welcomed the study. Rich Budinger, president of the trade group Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, said, “I think this is an opportunity to get more information about our industry to the general public.”

Since the 2012 study, Wisconsin has become the nation’s top producer of frac sand, or silica sand. More than any other state with significant reserves of this special round and hard sand, Wisconsin responded more aggressively and efficiently to increasing demand by energy companies to use it in fracking oil-and-gas wells. Silica dust exposure kills hundreds of workers a year, according to federal data.

Upside, Dark Side

Today, there are 135 active sand mines, processing and transport facilities in Wisconsin. A major upside of all this growth has been numerous jobs and millions of dollars in new development.

In the last three years, according to Budinger, industry and regulators have also collected “a tremendous amount of data to share,” such as how much toxic dust is kicked up into the air when this sand is mined, processed and transported across the state. He wants this data included in the new investigation, and he expects the upcoming study will look good for the industry.

But there has been a dark side to the frac sand boom, too. It has brought a spate of industry violations, from noise and light pollution to high emissions of toxic dust to illegal releases of mining waste into streams. An advocacy group report released last fall found over 40 percent of frac sand producers in Wisconsin have broken state environmental rules in recent years.

These issues have fueled citizen concern about the industry’s threat to public health and the environment, as well as resident confusion about which level of government—local, county or state—is responsible for regulating different parts of the industry.

Williams said many of these same frustrations were expressed in the recent petition, adding that she hopes the new investigation targets those issues.

State regulators have about one year to complete the analysis, the scope of which will be determined in the coming weeks.

Less Money, Less Authority for Watchdogs

A few days after the frac sand study was announced, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker released his proposed budget through 2017. It includes cutting the Department of Natural Resources funding by 3.6 percent in 2016 and then by another 0.7 percent in 2017.

The future budget will not be confirmed until around June. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, a Democrat from a district on Wisconsin’s western edge with significant sand activity, indicated the move to reduce DNR’s budget was worrisome.

According to Vinehout, her constituents are already concerned the agency doesn’t have enough bandwidth to properly oversee the fast-growing silica sand industry. The move to reduce the agency’s budget only adds to this anxiety, she said.

William Cosh, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said the agency is still analyzing if and how the budget cuts will impact their regulatory oversight of the industry. But, he said, the recently approved silica sand study won’t be impacted, and neither will the agency’s ability to respond to violations.

Also buried in the governor’s budget is a proposal to strip the Natural Resources Board, the agency that directed the Department of Natural Resources to take on the strategic analysis, of its policymaking power for an advisory role.

Vinehout said this move “has come as a bit of surprise to my constituents and my colleagues, yet it’s consistent with other actions this governor has taken” in the past to expand his office’s authority over environmental issues.

There are still many questions about what this proposed role change means, said Vinehout. But one thing is clear, she said: the board would no longer be able to order the DNR to carry out studies similar to the one on frac sand.

The board could still recommend such a study, but the decision would go through the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, Cathy Stepp.

Vinehout was one of more than a dozen Democrats and Republicans who recently voted against the reconfirmation of Stepp last week; despite this, Stepp narrowly won the appointment with the vote 17-13.

Laurel Patrick, press secretary for the governor’s office, wrote in an email: “The changes in the budget to the board are part of the Governor’s proposal to streamline state government services and make government more efficient, more effective, and more accountable.”