Frac sand companies get creative with local politics

Dan Weissmann Jan 16, 2015

Frac sand companies get creative with local politics

Dan Weissmann Jan 16, 2015

When officials in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, tried to set limits on new sand mines, mining companies looked closely at how local government is structured in rural Wisconsin and got creative.

Sand mining has turned parts of rural Wisconsin inside out thanks to fracking for oil and gas. Fracking consumes 100 billion pounds of sand a year, and sand from a few midwestern states is highly prized.

Trempealeau has more mines than any other county, and in mid-2013, the Trempealeau County board declared a year-long moratorium on new mining permits.

However, the county only regulates mining in unincorporated areas. So mining companies went to some of the cities of Trempealeau County and asked to be annexed.

Like the City of Independence, population 1,363, now home to two sand mines.

At City Hall, Mayor Ottie Baekcer says Independence needed a shot in the arm: “And as you see, there’s not people standing outside that door, trying to bring a GM factory in here.”

Sometimes there’s cash upfront. One company offered $1.5 million to the City of Blair — population 1,379, plus two mines — if the city annexed another site.

Cities like Blair and Independence also offer more-permissive rules for mines than the county. “We let them work 24 hours, ‘round the clock, you see, where the county don’t,” says Blair’s mayor, Ardell Knutson. Rules around noise can also be less strict.        

With annexations, more than half a dozen different ordinances now regulate sand-mining in the county.

“It’s chaos,” says Jack Speerstra, who represents a third layer of local government: townships that provide services to rural parts of the county. Land getting annexed into a city like Independence comes out of a township like Lincoln, where Speerstra is the board chair.

When his constituents have problems — with noise or light from mines that become their neighbors on newly-annexed city land — they get caught in the middle of the chaos that Speerstra talks about. “They call the county, and the county says it’s in the city jurisdiction,” he says. “Who do you call?”

Lincoln and another town are suing Independence to prevent one proposed annexation. The mine site is far from the city limit, connected by a strip of other parcels. Wisconsin courts have ruled against “balloon-on-a-string” annexations before.

Meanwhile, Speerstra has a dairy farm to run. He takes a stipend of $400 a month to serve as town chair.

When aked if it is usually in his job description to negotiate with publicly-traded companies, he chuckles.

“No,” he says. “I’ve done this for 25 years. And in the first in the first 25 years, I probably had contact with an attorneys once every 4 or 5 years at the most.”

Now, he talks to lawyers three, four, five times a week.

Meanwhile, mining companies have also looked for allies going up the chain of government in the state capitol. Proposed legislation in 2013 would have given the state exclusive authority over mining permits; cutting local governments out of the process. That proposal died the first time out, but one senator has said he plans to float it again soon.

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