Wisconsin committees consider new mine bill

The Wisconsin State Capitol is seen, Oct. 1, 2013.
The Wisconsin State Capitol is seen, Oct. 1, 2013.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A Republican-backed bill that would protect existing sand mines from new restrictions would tie local government officials’ hands and make it impossible to regulate the industry in the years to come, opponents told the Legislature’s mining committees Monday.

Sen. Tom Tiffany’s measure reflects the growing tension between residents, mining operations and local governments as the sand mine industry continues its dramatic expansion in Wisconsin. The proposal would prohibit local governments from imposing new zoning ordinances that are more restrictive than existing zoning rules on existing operations. The bill also would shield sand mines from any other new ordinance or license requirement if the mines are operating within the year preceding the ordinance or requirement’s adoption.

Supporters insist the measure gives the industry regulatory certainty going forward and ensures local officials who don’t support mining can’t regulate existing operations out of business. Critics counter the measure is a blatant attack on local control and amounts to a corporate giveaway.

“It just seems to me you’re tipping the balance,” Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, a member of the Senate mining committee, said during a joint public hearing on the measure. “What happens if there’s a real need on the part of these towns to deal with new situations or new technology? Aren’t you shutting them down completely?”

Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who serves as chairman of the Senate committee, countered that the measure simply codifies grandfathering concepts and helps preserve the industry and the jobs that go with it.

“You’re saying OK, we can change the rules here … and in some instances even go so far as to put a business out of operation. Where does that stop?” Tiffany said.

Wisconsin’s sand mine industry has boomed over the past few years, mirroring advances in hydraulic fracturing, which uses sand mixes with water and chemicals to extract natural gas and crude oil from rock formations.

The boom has fueled intensifying concerns about potential health problems from dust, road damage and environmental violations. The DNR has issued 22 notices of permit violations against 21 operations since November 2011. The vast majority of notices were for stormwater permit violations.

In written remarks to the committees, Dave Blouin, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter’s mining committee, called the bill a handout for a booming industry.

“The frac sand industry is hardly in need of special treatment,” Bouin wrote. “(The bill is) a free pass for mining companies from ever having to deal with rule changes … even if public health and safety are threatened by the mining operation.”

Tiffany put out a statement last week saying both the state towns and counties associations didn’t oppose the bill. The counties association’s lobbyist, Dan Bahr, reiterated that Monday. But the towns association’s executive director, Rick Stadelman, said he told Tiffany the organization would be neutral on the bill before speaking with the group’s board. The members voted on their position Monday morning before the hearing, he said, and agreed unanimously to oppose it.

“The concern is there may be new issues that could come up in the future,” Stadelman said. “We would be limited to (existing standards) forever.”

The League of Wisconsin Municipalities as well as the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters also have registered in opposition.

Tiffany and the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, defended the measure, saying the state Department of Natural Resources and federal environmental officials would still regulate mine pollution and protect the public.

“Local bodies probably don’t have the expertise to make those kinds of judgments,” Ballweg said.

The Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association President Rich Budinger released a statement before the hearing began stressing that the measure would prevent local governments from “changing the rules of the game.”

“This bill allows legally permitted, highly regulated businesses to keep operating responsibly” the statement said.

The bill’s chances are unclear. Neither mining committee was expected to vote on the bill Monday. Republicans control both the Senate and the Assembly, but the two-year legislative session is set to end next month and GOP leaders haven’t publicly expressed support for the bill.

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