Three companies at the forefront of the controversial “frac sand” mining industry have been recognized as “green.”
Three Wisconsin companies at the forefront of the controversial “frac sand” mining industry have been recognized by the state’s Green Tier Program, which rewards companies that excel in environmentally sound practices.
For the ever-growing advocacy group standing up against the silica sand mining industry, which has bulldozed the state for the past two years with state permits that don’t hold up to federal water and air quality standards, the recognition is nothing short of a joke.
“The idea that the agency would extend its meager resources dancing around with a green tier program is unforgivable,” Kimberly Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit legal organization.
The sand mining industry has boomed over the last half-decade, with more than 130 mining and processing sites in operation around the state. The Wisconsin industry’s growth is directly linked to the domestic oil boom in the U.S.
Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, requires perfectly round silica sand particles for the drilling process. Together with water and chemicals, the sand is shot deep into the earth to break up formations where oil is hidden.
Wisconsin is a hot spot for the silica sand.
The growing industry has meant big money for companies flocking to the state, but it has also spawned a host of concerns among area residents — including worries about natural habitat destruction, groundwater contamination and issues related to public health, as exposure to silica sand is the cause of silicosis.
In the midst of the controversy, the state Department of Natural Resources is giving some companies at the forefront of the movement a pat on the back.
The DNR’s Green Tier Program allows the companies to tout the environmentally friendly label, largely for marketing purposes. They’re at no risk of losing this title, as they’re now subject to a self-monitoring form of compliance.
Companies that have been recognized as Green Tier-worthy include Badger Mining, Unimin and Wisconsin Industrial Sands. U.S. Silica has begun the application process.
The announcement that companies will earn the green label comes after mining companies operating within the state were deemed by the Department of Natural Resources to have violated stormwater permits by allowing silica sand — a carcinogen — to contaminate streams, rivers and wetlands. The list of offending companies did not, however, include those who have received the Green Tier label.
What’s the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association?
The acceptance of the frac sand mining companies into the Green Tier club represents the first involvement the industry has had with the program. The companies are now among 70 firms throughout the state that don the Green Tier logo.
In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, an advocacy arm of the industry, said his organization encouraged member companies to apply for the recognition.
“It’s evidence to how we operate,” he told the station. “I mean, we can talk about how we’re responsible operators and we’re stewards of a natural resource, but this was an opportunity to actually show evidence to that.”
The Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association is comprised of industry leaders from around the country. Its board members include Marty Lehman, a representative of Badger Mining Corporation, a Wisconsin company.
Other board members include representatives from out-of-state companies. Dan Gerber of Fairmount Minerals, known in Wisconsin as the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Company, hails from Illinois, according to his Linkedin profile. Rick Solazzo represents Unimin Corporation, a New York-based business.
The DNR explains the mission of Green Tier companies like this: “Together, we can provide credible, creative ways to enable your business to be a powerful, sustainable force for environmental good and enhance your productivity, cut your costs and strengthen the health of your culture and community. Dynamic, forward thinking businesses and charter associations are benefiting from all the ideas, ideals and advantages of being a Green Tier participant.”
For those concerned with the environmental and health impacts related to silica sand mining, the DNR isn’t exactly a beacon of hope and trust. In a letter penned by two University of Wisconsin system educators — John Drost, professor of mathematics, and James Drost, instructor of mining and metallurgical engineering — the department has been slow to respond to complaints of water contamination allegedly caused by silica sand mines.
The letter, addressed to Tom Woletz, DNR senior projects coordinator, and Ruth King, DNR nonpoint source coordinator, specifically addresses issues relating to pollution at McKeesey Marsh and Beaver Creek. The letter details various instances of possibly contaminated water reported to the DNR.
In one such case, the letter addresses a report of discharge on Nov. 5, 2012. According to the letter, it took days for the DNR to respond.
“Even two days could make all the difference in the health of the creek and marsh,” the letter states. “When the conservation officer was taking pictures, why did he not employ a proper sampling procedure and take 2 to 3 gallons of the muddy water for analysis? Had that been done the DNR would have had a blue print of that waste water discharge; and when Great Northern (Sands) admitted that it was theirs, you then could check any future discharges against that analysis to prove it was water discharge from industrial sand production.”
This is just one complaint brought forward to the DNR regarding the regulation of the frac sand industry that has rapidly expanded in the state.
The state’s new export: sand
In 2005, Wisconsin was home to a handful of silica sand mines, and most of the state’s residents hadn’t a clue what the industry was all about. Fast-forward seven years and residents were dealing with 131 permitted frac sand mining and processing sites.
It wasn’t until June that the DNR decided to expand its staff to monitor air quality near frac sand mines. Tom Woletz, who served as the department’s senior manager, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in June that the industry will continue to grow — and that the DNR needs more officers to monitor it. He did, however, claim that state laws regulating the industry were adequate.
Some people in Wisconsin disagree with that.
“Wisconsin law does not account for the cumulative impacts of this rapidly growing industry,” Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters states on its site.
The organization argued that while permits require evaluations of water use, discharge and air pollution for each site, it doesn’t take into account what happens to an areas when multiple sites — or cluster sites — move into one area.
Wright agrees, claiming that air quality in such cluster areas isn’t properly regulated, leaving nearby residents to deal with the unknown.
“The reason we’re doing this is because it’s incredibly dangerous,” Wright told Mint Press News while discussing her organization’s fight for tougher permit regulations.
While the industry operates under Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for workers, those same standards don’t apply to the people living inside Wisconsin homes.
While a company may have been given a permit to operate a frac sand mine, and has potentially escaped violation assessments by the DNR, it doesn’t mean it’s operating an environmentally sound operation.
On top of that, there are concerns over the growing number of mines that have been cited by the DNR. According to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, more than 70 mines, representing one-fifth of the industry, have been cited for environmental violations.
A growing, controversial industry
The industry moved in without residents understanding the impacts that would be seen in their neighborhoods. Residents complained of heavy loading truck traffic on once-sleepy country roads. Those living on rural landscapes became neighbors to silica sand mines that destroyed property values and altered their way of life.
Wisconsin serves as an example of what bordering states are aiming to prevent. In Minnesota, environmental advocates from around the state attempted to lobby the state legislature to institute a moratorium on the frac sand industry until an environmental assessment of the industry could be made. Residents used Wisconsin as a terrifying example of what could happen in their own communities.
“We know what the dangers are,” Bobby King, director of the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota, told Mint Press News in February. “We went over to Wisconsin. They (oil companies) push a lot of money around. There are spills, air problems and property value problems.”
Complaints regarding the frac sand industry have been broad. Residents have shown concern about the impact floating sand could have on the health of community members. While silica sand has been proven to cause silicosis, studies regarding the impact on people living near frac sand mining operations have not yet fully been conducted.
According to those living in the midst of it all, no silica sand mining company should be touting a green-friendly label.