Western Wisconsin (WQOW) - The demand for frac sand has kept local governments very busy. Much of the authority to regulate is on their shoulders and while some counties moved forward and approved mining projects rather quickly, others are taking a more methodical approach. Eau Claire County has had a moratorium on sand mining in place since late last year.
"I can easily see 10 to 12 mines in the relatively near future, within the next couple of years in Eau Claire County," said Mel Erickson, director of Eau Claire County Planning and Development. At least two companies, Hi-Crush and High Country Sand have already expressed interest. Hi-Crush wants to mine sand in the Town of Bridge Creek; High Country in Otter Creek. "Bridge Creek and Otter Creek are on the eastern end of the deposits in Eau Claire County. There are fewer deposits in both of those towns than there are in Pleasant Valley, Clear Creek and Drammen to the west. That's where the majority of the deposits are," explained Erickson.
Potential hot spots for sand mining are primarily in the southwest part of Eau Claire County, but those areas aren't located as close to rail as potential sites in other parts of the county. "Companies have gone and done their research. They know where the deposits are, they know where the sand is. Chances are if you have a good deposit, they will eventually find you," said Brian Nodolf, an attorney with Spangler, Nodolf, Bruder & Klinkhammer in Eau Claire.
Eau Claire County is in the midst of doing its own research. The county enacted a moratorium to give it time to study. "We've learned a lot in the last couple of months and I'm sure we'll learn more in the next two months, but I think we've got a pretty good handle on things right now as far as what we can and can't do, how far we can go," said Erickson.
The county has zoning ordinances, which are important. There are those for stormwater, erosion control and health codes. All can be modified to address non-metallic mining. A number of county departments are looking at how frac sand fits in. "There are a lot of things that are consistent across all mines. Lighting... they all need lighting. We all know that we want the lighting to be shielded and directed inward so do we have to have that as a condition on every permit or can we change the ordinance to make that a standard," said Erickson, who also talked about groundwater. "The companies are all saying, 'We're going to stay above, typically, five feet or more above the groundwater table.' Well, where is the groundwater table? Somebody has to monitor that so we know we're going to require wells to be put in so we know where the groundwater table is."
There's also the matter of what could get into the groundwater. "Unlike air, things are distributed in the groundwater fairly uniformally. It's fairly easy to detect. It's not going up and down like air currents might be going or going around our monitoring wells. In all likelihood, it gets fairly dispersed and we feel fairly confident that we'll be able to monitor groundwater effectively and determine if it's having any impact. For the Hi-Crush application, for instance, in the Town of Bridge Creek, they're not anticipating using much, if any, coagulants or flocculents. They're looking at using filtration plates to filter out the very fine material," said Erickson.
Under the zoning code, every application for a mine would require a conditional use permit. Where there are things that are unique to that location, the county could place conditions on the permit to address that. "We'll probably make some ordinance changes so we don't have to put 50 conditions on every application," said Erickson.
Attorney Brian Nodolf, who represents energy companies, is hopeful those conditions don't represent dollar signs. "I have a project going in a particular county and I was at a recent meeting and I heard, 'Well, this is our opportunity for the county to share in the economic benefit of this project,' which creates a fundamental problem for me in terms of that's not how our system is set up. This is a private industry," said Nodolf.
Problems can arise within the industry which is why oversight is needed. Eau Claire County says it can do more than the DNR, in some cases, if there are violations. "Something like that happened in Chippewa County not too long ago where they had a storm water pond that blew out at one of these sites. People asked, 'Why isn't the DNR doing anything?' Well, it was either send them a nasty letter and tell them to clean it up without any real teeth to it or refer it to the Department of Justice. (Whereas) the county had citation authority and they were able to more quickly go in and manage it... so it was just easier for the county to deal with it and they dealt with it," said Erickson.
So what's next for Eau Claire County?
"From everything that I've heard from all the departments that are working on this, we're looking towards the end of February as having our recommendations done. That doesn't mean we're necessarily going to have ordinances drafted, amendments drafted, but our recommendations on what to do," said Erickson.
Residents will be watching for those recommendations as a growing industry gets set to dig its way into Eau Claire County.
The county's moratorium runs through the end of May. There's an amendment on the table that would exempt Hi-Crush. The county board could take that up in the next few weeks.