Fracking for oil and gas consumes about 100 billion pounds of sand every year, much of it from a few Midwestern states. The sand industry has grown faster than regulators can keep up in Wisconsin, which has more sand mines than any other state. Fines for pollution are modest, many mines have not received full inspections and the state has failed to update its permit for sand mines, even though the old terms expired last year.
In December 2013, the Wisconsin Department of Justice settled its biggest case involving pollution from a sand mine. A company called Preferred Sands admitted to multiple air- and water-pollution violations at a site in Trempealeau County. Most vividly, after a spring storm, discharge from the Preferred site traveled across a road and into a nearby home.
“This sort of mass of sandy, sludgy stuff literally went through an Amish family’s living room,” recalls Pat Malone, a University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension professor who works with local government. “I mean, it’s like waking up in the middle of the night going, ‘I don’t think I’d like to swim!’”
Six inches of discharge blocked the road. Workers spent three days clearing it. But given sand mining’s scale, the fine doesn’t seem very big: $200,000. Six months after the settlement, an investment firm put $680 million into Preferred Sands.
The pace of inspections appears slow. The state Department of Natural Resources says that at last count, just 37 percent of all active mines had gotten full inspections since mid-2013. It hopes to inspect the rest by July.
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout represents Trempealeau County. Asked if she thinks the state is understaffed, she says, “That is an understatement. The state is woefully understaffed.”
The department has enough people, says Deb Dix, who describes herself as the contact person for industrial sand mining at the Department for Natural Resources. However, she says, the state can’t do everything some people would like.
“We are governed by the authority given to us by the legislature,” she says. “I know, that sounds like trying-to-avoid, but it’s not. We have certain authorities for what we can and can’t do.”
One of the department’s responsibilities is to review the terms of permits for sand mines. The most recent terms predate the frac sand explosion — they were written for gravel pits — and staff decided to rewrite them, says Water Division Administrator Russ Rasmussen.
Meanwhile, the old ones expired last spring. New rules haven’t come out yet, but the department has issued some permits under the old ones; an arrangement that Rasmussen describes as “a gray legal area.”