Western Wisconsin (WQOW) - As the frac sand industry expanded in recent years, so did citizen concerns. When they saw a spill in a river or wetlands, they wanted to know, "What ended up in the water?" It's the job of the DNR to get to the bottom of it.
"It became evident that it was important to have one focused point person people could talk to," said Deb Dix. She's the DNR's new lead voice on frac sand. "There's this view that in Wisconsin, there's this overriding permit for this industry, which is not the case," said Dix.
The DNR does provide oversight and enforcement in some areas, most notably, the water: wastewater discharges and storm water runoff. Great Northern Sand in New Auburn has been written up a few times. In the first case, a discharge from a storm water pond resulted in muddy-looking water in the Highway 53 median. Months later, there was another alleged violation. "Great Northern, had a discharge to, they have wetlands that surround the facility," said Dix.
The DNR says the discharge went into the Beaver Creek Wetlands. Citizens then questioned what ended up in the water. "I understand that there are concerns because what they're seeing is a chemical usage in the process," said Dix. In that process, one thing that has citizens concerned is the word "acrylamide." The DNR says it may be present in the water used to wash frac sand and people who drink water containing high levels of acrylamide over a long period of time may have an increased risk of getting cancer.
Great Northern says at the request of Barron County, sediments have been tested by a third party and those tests have never detected additives. The DNR says it doesn't know whether there's residual acrylamide in the water. Acrylamide tests are not required and the DNR says they're pretty expensive, so the agency does not do them. "On the broader scale, acrylamides are used in many different things already including wastewater treatment, drinking treatment plants, day-to-day usage of things that have been around for years. People never knew about it being out there," said Dix.
In the past two years, 22 violation notices have been given to frac sand companies, most for storm water violations. "What you don't see is loss of habitat and the microbiology that's being impacted when sediment gets in there that doesn't belong," said Dix.
Unfilled bore holes don't belong either and that's become a DNR concern. "There's a lot of exploratory borings being put in looking for mine resources. We've seen a lot of them not abandoning the bore holes properly, which is a huge concern because if they're getting down into the water table, that leaves an open conduit for contaminants to the water table. We've actually had at least one situation where a farmer had a cow break a leg because of a hole that wasn't filled correctly," said Dix.
So how does Deb Dix and the DNR handle violations? "Normally what happens is once a violation is discovered, whether it's self reporting or we get a complaint, however it comes in, we're going to be in contact with the facility, go out and do an inspection. They're going to be required to submit to us a plan of action, how they're going to do repairs."
That's exactly what Great Northern is doing. "I don't think we've ever had anybody who was not willing to cooperate once an issue had been identified," said Dix.
However, even with cooperation from companies, the DNR may need to take additional steps. "If we get into formal enforcement action, we're looking at notices of violation, enforcement conferences, we have the option of doing a citation, or referral to Department of Justice... and we've had all of that," said Dix. Two cases involving Tiller Corporation and Preferred Sands have been referred to the DOJ. That referral was made more than a year ago and no decision has been made.
Dix says it's good to know more help is on the way to help oversee an industry that has grown far and wide in western Wisconsin. "We're adding three new positions that are specific to the frac sand mining industry. They're in the process of being hired right now," said Dix.
(This is second part of a two-part series about the DNR's new point person on frac sand. Click here for part one.)