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Battle heats up in Wisconsin over fracking sand rules

By Bob Downing Published: October 25, 2013

From the Associated Press:

By Todd Richmond

A Republican bill that would scale back local sand mine regulations in Wisconsin amounts to an unwarranted attack on small government and could put people who live around the operations at risk, the measure’s opponents told lawmakers Thursday.

Dozens of people packed a public hearing in front of the Senate mining committee, forcing pages to open up two overflow rooms. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, told the committee her district includes dozens of mines and people who have to live with the operations deserve a say in regulations.

“The people I represent keep asking me, ‘Why do Madison politicians want to tell us what to do? They don’t live here,’” Vinehout said. “I don’t know what to tell them.”

The bill’s chief Senate sponsor, Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, countered the measure would shift regulatory authority to the state and eliminate an emerging patchwork of restrictive local ordinances.

“Regardless of the level of government … there also has to be an accountability or respect for private property rights,” Tiffany said. “If any government gets away from that, I come down for private property rights.”

Wisconsin’s sand mine industry has boomed over the last few years with advances in hydraulic fracturing, which uses sand mixed with water and chemicals to extract natural gas and crude oil from rock formations. The number of mines in the state grew from five in 2010 to 105 as of April, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

With the increase have come concerns about potential health hazards from silica dust and damage to roads, leading local governments to pass their own ordinances governing area mines. Trempealeau County officials, for example, have permitted 28 sand mines over the last three years. They passed a moratorium on new mining in August to study air quality effects, requiring mining operations to monitor the air along property lines that lie close to residential areas.

The bill would prohibit local governments from establishing sand mine regulations under so-called police powers, which give them broad authority to regulate health, safety and welfare. They could still regulate the mines under their zoning authority, but new zoning requirements wouldn’t apply to existing operations.

The measure also would prohibit local governments from passing their own water and air quality standards, leaving the mines subject to state environmental regulations, and bar them from passing blasting ordinances and collecting fees to cover road damage before damage occurs.

The measure’s supporters told the committee the state Department of Natural Resources should be the sole entity to set environmental standards.

But Vinehout and Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau, warned the bill would eliminate local officials’ ability to protect their citizens.

They noted the proposal would likely nullify Trempealeau County’s moratorium and monitoring efforts. Local governments across the state would have to parse their regulations to determine what was enacted under police powers and determine what rules were invalidated, they said.

They also complained the DNR lacks the manpower to regulate the sand mine industry.

The DNR doesn’t have any employees devoted exclusively to sand mine regulation but spreads the responsibilities across staffers. The agency does monitor Wisconsin’s air for particulate pollution but doesn’t track silica dust levels because no standards exist for it outside mining boundaries, said Bart Sponseller, the agency’s air management bureau director.

Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, a committee member, said the industry has managed to expand dramatically under the current system. He called the bill “the Moscow model.”

“That isn’t small government,” he said. “That’s big government dictating all of the terms to the local officials.”

The bill’s future is unclear. The committee wasn’t expected to vote on the proposal Thursday, and it’s not clear Tiffany has the votes in the Senate.

Republicans control the chamber 18-15, but Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, released a statement Thursday saying he was against the measure because it strips local governments of their powers. Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper he can’t support the measure unless it’s amended. He didn’t immediately return a message seeking more details. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, also didn’t immediately return a message.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, supports the measure but says he won’t bring it up for a vote until spring.

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