Republican legislators are drumming up support for a proposal that would strip the authority of local governments to site, regulate and even monitor controversial frac sand mines and the public health, safety, property damage and other concerns that come with them.
This proposal comes on the heels of an explosion in the number of frac sand mines created in parts of northern and central Wisconsin over the past three years, and a corresponding dramatic spike in campaign contributions to legislative and statewide candidates from the industries that process and use the sand.
Powerful special interests that benefit from the plan – the sand mining and natural gas industries – contributed nearly $758,000 to legislative and statewide candidates from 2007 through 2012, according to a recent Democracy Campaign report.
Those contributions grew sharply each year, particular after 2010 when the number of sand mines and processing and transport operations grew from about a half dozen to more than 100 this summer throughout central and northern Wisconsin.
And the money continues to flow in. The two industries that directly benefit from loose mining rules and enforcement of environmental regulations doled out an additional $101,164 in the first six months of 2013 when the latest deregulation proposal was in the works.
In addition to these two industries, the powerful Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, is praising the proposed plan. WMC represents more than a dozen powerful special interests that contribute millions of dollars to legislative and statewide candidates. The group has also secretly raised and spent an estimated $18.4 million in Wisconsin elections since 2006 mostly on negative broadcast advertising that usually supports Republican candidates.
Opponents of sand mines and their processing and transport operations say airborne silicia sand used to drill for natural gas in other states causes respiratory and other health problems, threatens the quality and quantity of groundwater and accelerates road damage at increased costs to local taxpayers. Supporters say the industry provides much needed jobs and an overall boost to local economies.
The latest deregulation plan would prohibit local governments from using their police powers as allowed under a 2012 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to determine where frac sand mines are located. Local governments could use zoning and reclamation ordinances to site the mines, but would prevent counties, cities, villages and towns from closing down existing sand mines or letting them expand on adjacent land.
The Department of Natural Resources would be in charge of imposing air and water quality standards for frac sand mines, but couldn’t impose standards stricter than state law.
Local governments would also be prohibited from creating or enforcing their own air and water quality standards and restrictions; requiring air and water quality monitoring; and regulating the amount of water used in mining operations.
The bill also reduces a county’s authority to require mine operators to repair damaged land; prevents local governments from regulating explosives used in mining or quarrying; and dictates the methods counties and municipalities can use to get mining operations to reimburse them for road damages.