Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 5, 2013
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com
The fast-growing sand mining industry is grappling with a rising number of environmental problems across western Wisconsin.
Many of the cases involve water pollution — where vast piles of sand, sediment and dirt have washed off properties, often after heavy rains, and contaminated waterways.
Since November 2011, the Department of Natural Resources has issued 20 notices of violation to 19 companies, according to agency records. The notice is a formal letter alleging a violation of state environmental regulations.
Five companies alone violated their storm-water permits in April and May, the DNR says, when rain and melting snow washed debris into streams and wetlands in Barron and Trempealeau counties.
Three of the DNR’s cases have been referred to the state Department of Justice for prosecution, where a spokeswoman said all remain under review. Other cases could go to the attorney general, DNR officials said last week.
The enforcement activity highlights the difficulties in the early going for an industry that’s mushroomed as sand companies supply a key ingredient for a practice known as fracking, a controversial technique used to extract oil and natural gas.
There are also worries in the environmental community that the DNR should devote more resources to sand mines, which in some cases are not inspected before they open.
Fracking uses water, chemicals and sand under high pressure to extract oil and natural gas from deposits that previously had been considered impossible to reach. The shape and hardness of western Wisconsin sand is highly coveted because its special characteristics help keep fractures open.
Many environmentalists have expressed concerns about the effect of fracking because, among other things, it can potentially harm groundwater supplies.
But the technique is also the prime reason the United States is becoming less dependent on foreign oil. U.S. oil and gas production companies added 3.8 billion barrels of oil reserves in 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported on Thursday. The increase is the largest in a single year since the agency started tracking the numbers in 1977.
In several interviews, DNR officials used the same phrase when explaining the rise in pollution cases. They likened the surge to “growing pains” as companies quickly started digging and shipping sand to oil patches in Texas and North Dakota.
With the onslaught, “some facilities are doing things, almost everything, perfect, but others are struggling,” said Deb Dix, a former DNR enforcement specialist and now the agency’s point person on sand mining.
An industry leader agreed.
“Maybe what we are seeing out there is a little bit of inexperience,” said Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association and regional manager of Fairmount Minerals.
The association announced its formation a year ago with four founding companies — Fairmount Minerals, which operates in the state as Wisconsin Industrial Sand Co., Badger Mining Corp., U.S. Silica Holdings Inc. and Unimin Corp.
Even though the group is trying to broaden its base, there are still only four members. One of the roadblocks: Companies that join must follow a code of conduct and can’t have violated state environmental laws in the previous two years, Budinger said.
“Anytime anybody within our industry … gets a violation, it hurts everybody,” Budinger said. “It hurts the company that gets the violation, of course; it hurts the community that the company is operating within. It hurts the industry, and it hurts the people who are good operators.”
Steve Sisbach, the DNR’s chief of environmental enforcement, attributed the spring jump in cases to companies that were unprepared for heavy rains.
Another factor is that sand mining is under the microscope, he said.
“The DNR relies on the public’s eyes and ears, and certainly we’re getting more calls because of the public attention with sand mining,” Sisbach said.
In 2010, there were five sand mines and five processing plants, according to the DNR. As of June, there were an estimated 115 licensed sand mining operations in the state, according to the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, which tracks the industry. Another dozen or so companies have applied for permits, but are not yet licensed.
In a few short years, massive piles of sand, industrial-sized processing plants, and spikes in rail and truck traffic have become common sights across 20 counties in western Wisconsin.
And with it has come a double-edged sword: New investment tempered by environmental concerns.
“It’s really changing the nature of western Wisconsin,” former Natural Resources Board member John Welter told board members in September at a hearing in Eau Claire.
The cases the DNR has referred to the state Department of Justice include an April 2012 accident in Burnett County, where sediment flowed from a site owned by Interstate Energy Partners of Plymouth, Minn., into a wetland, then into a creek and ultimately into the St. Croix River, a federally protected national scenic waterway.
Ruth King, a storm-water specialist with the DNR, said the spill sent plumes of sediment-laden water into the river.
“It’s probably in Lake Pepin by now,” she said, referring to a section of the Mississippi River. “I think they just had too much water and couldn’t deal with it.”
In another case referred to the Justice Department in spring 2012, a dike collapsed in Blair, in Trempealeau County, “resulting in a river of mud flowing in excess of 2,100 feet, causing extensive damage to private property,” a DNR report shows. The owner, Preferred Sands, headquartered in Radnor, Pa., is accused of failing to prepare and implement a storm-water control plan.
In April of that year, Preferred Sands’ processing plant also violated limits for particle and carbon monoxide pollution.
A different situation occurred in Augusta, in Eau Claire County, in 2012 when Hi-Crush Proppants of Houston drilled a pair of high capacity wells in July and September without a permit, the DNR said. The company received a notice that it was violating environmental laws, but the case was not referred to the attorney general.
The company drilled a third smaller well without a permit. Another high-capacity well was drawing 50% more water than allowed by its permit, based on an October field inspection.
Kim Krueger, Augusta’s superintendent of public works, said he has been checking the city’s four municipal wells on a daily basis since the arrival of Hi-Crush — company documents say its sand reserves could be mined for the next 30 years.
“Right now we have not seen any changes in our wells,” Krueger said. “A year from now? We will keep monitoring. Tens of years from now? Who knows.”
The DNR says that the companies are addressing their problems.
The St. Croix River spill “is nothing we intended to happen — it’s not our MO,” said Mike Caron, director of land use affairs for Tiller Corp. of Maple Grove, Minn. Tiller is the operator of the Burnett County mine. Interstate Energy referred calls to Tiller.
Caron said the company took immediate steps once it was notified by emptying the pond that had been compromised. The site was re-engineered to ensure that any unintended leaks stay on the property.
The spill in Trempealeau County was caused by several factors, Preferred Sands said. In an email, a spokeswoman blamed “historic and sustained” rain and problems the company inherited after it bought the mine in late 2011. “These issues include, but are not limited to, significant efforts to improve storm-water management and prevent erosion from stockpiles,” the spokeswoman said.
The company said its emissions problems were resolved when it received a new air permit from the DNR.
In the case involving groundwater pumping in Eau Claire County, Hi-Crush Proppants told the DNR, according to documents, that it had relied on a contractor to handle details. Hi-Crush also thought the use of too much water was acceptable if averaged over an entire month. The DNR disagreed on both issues, agency documents show.
“I think that the DNR is doing everything it can to enforce the laws that are on the books,” said Jennifer Giegerich, legislative director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.
“The problem is that they don’t have the resources they need, and it’s the citizens who have to find where the violations are happening.”
To regulate air emissions, the DNR estimated a year ago it would need 10.2 full time equivalent positions for what was then 54 known sites in Wisconsin, according to a May 23 budget memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The agency identified its minimum needs at four.
Ultimately, the DNR received two new positions in the 2013-’15 state budget — and the spending was touted by the industry and Gov. Scott Walker as a sign the administration was staying on top of the fast-growing industry.
The same memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau indicated that the “combination of the rapid growth of the industrial sand mine industry and DNR’s limited resources has resulted in some frac sand mines not receiving inspections, or only being inspected if the DNR receives complaints about the operation.”
Dix said the addition of two positions at a time of dwindling state resources is significant, and that to accommodate the growing workload, the DNR is shifting more people into sand mining.
Dix acknowledged some sand operations could operate for a time without an inspection. She likened it to construction sites where a contractor applies for — and receives — a storm-water permit.
The DNR doesn’t go out to every construction site on a set inspection schedule, but contractors are responsible for complying with law, she said.