Western Wisconsin (WQOW) - As the frac sand industry grows, more questions are raised. Citizens have spelled out several concerns and now we're hearing from the industry about how those concerns are being addressed.
"I don't think the debate is bad," says Brian Nodolf, an attorney with Spangler, Nodolf, Bruder & Klinkhammer in Eau Claire. Nodolf represents energy companies and landowners. In the last year and a half, he's worked on 35 leases with landowners for mineral rights and he's heard comments like this from concerned citizens: "Silica sand, itself, is a carcinogen. If you get enough silica dust in your lungs, you will get silicosis and die."
"I think what the companies are objecting to are the scare tactics that are being used or the fear that's being put upon people by saying, 'Oh, your well is going to be poisoned, you won't be able to breathe.' The science just doesn't support that," said Nodolf.
One issue is how air is monitored outside a sand mine or processing facility. "Air quality monitoring for these types of facilities is no panacea," said Mel Erickson, director of the Eau Claire County Department of Planning and Development. Erickson is currently studying the issue in the midst of a sand mining moratorium in Eau Claire County.
The DNR requires air permits for sand mines and processing plants, but those permits don't do a great deal to regulate what ends up in the air surrounding the facilities.
"You can effectively put monitors around a mine, but it depends on which way the wind is blowing, how many monitors do you need to effectively to do that... And not just which direction the wind is blowing, but wind goes up, it goes down, it may be blowing the material above the monitors and they wouldn't record anything. The material might get deposited 300, 400 yards away on somebody's clothes hanging on their clothes line, on their car and yet, you might not register anything at the mine site," explained Erickson.
The DNR recently recommended no further regulations: In a report, the department says with the information available right now, it cannot determine whether, or to what extent, silica emissions in the state may be a public health concern. "We are happy to comply with additional monitoring, if you believe additional monitoring is necessary, but we want that determination to be made by the agency with the authority and resources to do it," explained Nodolf.
Another concern has been the use of flocculents by mining companies. Flocculents are chemicals used to separate the fine sands from the wash water and then the water is recycled back into the washing process. "A flocculent has been a tried and true product for a number of years in other applications," said Nodolf, who pointed to the Village of Prairie Farm where Procore, a mining company, had interest. "There was a great opposition to the use of a flocculent because we were near a river. They were very surprised to learn the village in this locality uses the exact same flocculent in their wastewater treatment plant and they discharged into the exact same river."
WQOW News 18 contacted the Village of Prairie Farm which said it doesn't use flocculents, but there are others that do. The City of Eau Claire uses a flocculent in its wastewater treatment facility.
One more concern raised by citizens is blasting at a mine. Nodolf addressed that here, "We invited them (citizens) to come out and experience what it looks like and they detonated the charge and they were standing around saying, 'Ok, when is it going to happen?' And they said, 'It already has,' and they said, 'That was it?'"
"We have concerns. We listen to the public. We've identified hazards within the mining process itself," said Rich Budinger, the regional operations manager for Fairmount Minerals, which has four mines in western Wisconsin. "We're under constant inspection. The facilities on the surface mine will have two inspections per year, our underground operations will have four inspections per year," said Budinger.
One of those underground operations, in Maiden Rock, received 17 citations in October. The Mining Safety and Health Administration is calling for more than $6,200 in fines. The company is contesting those citations. WQOW News 18 has requested specifics from the government on those, but Fairmount Minerals has said most are categorized as not significant. The company says inspectors come in looking for: equipment hazards -- plus, "They also look at dust and noise. They call it environmental testing and they'll hook up dust pumps to our workers and in their areas, they'll be required to wear this dust pump and collect particulate matter and also test for crystalline silica," explained Budinger.
A question that comes up again and again is whether mining executives would live near one of their own mines. The president of one company in Wisconsin reportedly said he wouldn't live within a half a mile of a frac sand mine. That raised red flags. WQOW News 18 posed the same question to Budinger. "I do live within a half a mile within an operation of one of our competitors over in Woodbury, Minnesota. As long as a company is incorporating technology for dust collection and dust suppression, watering roads, using bag houses, dust collection within the dry plant, there aren't any concerns that I have," said Budinger.
"I don't think the debate is bad. I think it's good because obviously, what the standards were 50 years ago in any industry have certainly changed over the last 50 years and responsible companies aren't afraid of those. This is a long-term investment for them. They want to be good citizens, they want to take care of their employees," said Nodolf.
So as the issue is debated, it's up to the local government to determine how to handle it, which Eau Claire County is in the process of doing. "I can easily see 10 to 12 mines in the relatively near future, within the next couple of years in Eau Claire County," said Erickson.
WQOW News 18 will pick it up right there on Thursday night in Sandstorm of Business. We'll examine what the county is doing in the midst of its moratorium. In case you've missed any of the reports so far in the series, each one can be found on our website.