Citizens across western Wisconsin contact me concerned about the siting of sand mines in their neighborhoods. Frac sand mining has become Wisconsin’s “gold rush.”
Wisconsin’s hills and bluffs are filled with a very special type of sand. It has the exact hardness, shape, and purity the oil and natural gas exploration industry needs; plus it is easy to extract.
Sand mines have co-existed with their neighbors in western Wisconsin for thirty years. But the dramatic increase in demand for Wisconsin sand has caused existing mines to ramp up production and caused a growing number of new mines.
According to the Center for Investigative Journalism, last summer there were 16 active sand mines in Wisconsin. Five months later, Department of Natural Resources officials pegged the number of mines at 34 active mines with another twenty-five or so in development. This rapid growth of frac sand mining has caused concern about siting and operation.
This week I introduced two separate bills to address the most frequent sand mine concerns raised by constituents and local officials.
Many people told me they didn’t know a mine was proposed for their neighborhood. In one case a woman heard about the mine from a neighbor who saw a newspaper notice just days before the public hearing.
My first bill would make sure neighbors know about proposed sand mine well before local government acts to approve the mine.
The proposed law requires a 30-day notice of a public hearing to be published in local and regional newspapers. Neighbors within one mile of the proposed mine must receive notice of the hearing through first class mail. My goal is to give people adequate time to prepare for public hearings and encourage public participation and informed local decision-making.
Local officials told me they feel they don’t have the power to adequately protect their communities. When local officials consider a frac sand mine application, current regulations give them little power to negotiate with mining companies on topics such as hours of operation, blasting policies, damage to local roads, groundwater usage and air pollution. Local officials want the economic benefits of these mines but they also have a duty to protect the health and welfare of their communities.
My second bill would strengthen local zoning laws. Frac sand mining would become a conditional use in areas zoned agriculture. This means local officials would have an opportunity to negotiate conditions concerning the operation of the mine. Requiring a conditional use permit keeps the benefits of local decision-making and brings to a public hearing local issues related to the sand mine siting.
The bill also prohibits frac sand mining in residential areas. Industrial sand mining in residential areas is simply an incompatible land use. My proposed law would not affect existing mines but would prohibit future mines from locating in areas zoned residential.
The decisions we make related to sand mining will affect Wisconsin families for decades. Local officials are struggling to balance new jobs and economic growth with citizen concerns about health, safety and the existing economy of agriculture and tourism.
The two bills I introduced bring a common sense approach to involving citizens and their local officials in the public process of balancing Wisconsin’s “gold rush” with Wisconsin’s quality of life.