A new Land Stewardship Project report released today shows that the frac sand mining industry in Wisconsin is systemically disregarding state regulations, a red flag to communities in Minnesota that are grappling with the onslaught of this industrial activity. The report, which is based on an analysis of public data and news reports, also documented over a dozen instances of influence peddling and conflicts of interest within the industry.
"Breaking the Rules for Profit: An Analysis of the Frac Sand Industry's Violations of State Regulations & Manipulation of Local Governments in Wisconsin," found that:
Of the 47 frac sand companies currently operating in Wisconsin, 24, or 51 percent, have seriously violated Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regulations, manipulated local governments, or engaged in influence peddling and conflicts of interest.
Twenty of 47 companies (43 percent) not only violated DNR regulations, but they required substantial regulatory action to come into compliance -- or, even worse, never came into compliance even after court action and fines. (One county-level regulator was quoted as saying, "…citations are pretty much ineffective for this industry.")
In total, between 2011 and 2014 there were at least 19 cases of frac sand companies abusing the annexation process to avoid regulations, engaging in influence peddling, and creating conflicts of interest in local governments. "It appears an unwillingness to spend the resources to follow regulations and minimize pollution is part of the frac sand industry's business model," said Land Stewardship Project member Marilyn Frauenkron-Bayer of Minnesota's Houston County. Houston County is at the heart of an effort to greatly expand frac sand mining in the Upper Midwest. "When you couple the inherently destructive process of industrial-scale strip mining for frac sand with companies blatantly disregarding the rules designed to protect the community, you have a disaster."
The report found violations among companies of varying sizes, including the nation's largest provider of frac sand, the Unimin Corporation, which began construction without a permit at its Tunnel City mine in southwestern Wisconsin. The violations described in the report range from problems with air quality and illegal drilling/construction, to sediment and wastewater spills.
In addition to violations of DNR regulations, manipulation of local governments is widespread in the industry, the report found. Frac sand companies routinely use promises of tax revenue and other financial contributions to persuade city governments to annex mine sites from counties and townships, exempting the mines from county laws like moratoriums. Threats of annexation and the complete loss of local control have pressured local governments into relaxing their regulations. The LSP report has compiled cases of frac sand companies hiring local government officials or leasing land from them, creating clear conflicts of interest.
Despite this abysmal record, the frac sand industry still portrays the problem as one of "a few bad apples" and refuses to acknowledge the extent of the problem, according to Stephanie Porter, a Land Stewardship Project organizer and the author of the report. This should serve as a warning to any community in Minnesota that is facing the threat of a frac sand mining operation moving into the community, she said.
"The facts are clear," said Bayer. "The frac sand industry has a pervasive record of violating state regulations. In their rush to make money, they show little or no concern for regulations, much less their neighbors' safety."
The report, "Breaking the Rules for Profit: An Analysis of the Frac Sand Industry's Violations of State Regulations & Manipulation of Local Governments in Wisconsin," is available at http://landstewardshipproject.org/posts/660
Frac Sand Rush Threatens American Towns, Advocates Warn
Lynne Peeples 09/30/14 07:30 AM ET
Victoria Trinko hasn't opened the windows of her Wisconsin home in two years -- for fear of the dust clouds billowing from a frac sand mine a half-mile away.
"This blowing of silica sand has not abated since the inception of the mine in 2011," Trinko, a farmer and the town clerk for Cooks Valley, Wisconsin, said during a media call on Thursday highlighting an industry proliferating alongside horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Frac sand is an essential ingredient in the process of natural gas drilling.
Trinko is among residents, advocates and scientists warning of risks posed by the frac sand boom -- from heavy truck traffic and sleep-stymying lights and noise. At least one truck hauling silica sand travels a road by Trinko's home every three minutes. When HuffPost spoke with Trinko in 2012, she had just been diagnosed with asthma -- and her doctor suggested the condition was pollution-related.
The industry is concentrated in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Rising demand, however, threatens to expand frac sand mining into New York, Massachusetts and 10 other states, according to a report released Thursday by the Civil Society Institute's Boston Action Research, a human rights advocacy group, in partnership with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group and other environmental health advocates.
On top of the burgeoning rush for natural gas, the appetite for frac sand has been inflated by the recent discovery that using more sand per well increases fracking yields. An energy consulting firm estimated that fracking companies will blast nearly 95 billion pounds of frac sand into wells this year -- an increase of almost 30 percent over last year, exceeding predictions. The number of frac mines have more than doubled in the last decade, with Wisconsin and Minnesota now hosting a total of 164 active facilities, according to the advocacy report. An additional 20 mines have been proposed in the two states.
Deanna Schone of Glenwood City, Wisconsin, lives near one of the proposed frac sand mines. She told HuffPost that city council members had "made their intentions known" in early September that they will allow the mine to proceed in a location about a half-mile from both her home and her kids' school.
"We heard at the beginning that this was going to happen very quickly. That's very much what happened," said Schone, noting that most decisions seemed to have been made "under the table" before the public caught wind. In an effort to protect residents in regions not yet experienced with the frac sand boom, she offered some advice: "Talk to your local government. Do you have zoning? What are types of things that you could do to at least slow down the process?
"Once attorneys and big money are involved, it's an uphill battle," Schone added, as she stood outside her home and watched two young deer eating acorns off her kids' basketball court. "This is part of why we don't want to live in an industrial area."
An interactive map published with the new report shows that more than 58,000 people live within a half-mile of existing or permitted frac sand mining sites across a 33-county span in Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as a small corner of Iowa. Twenty schools also fall within that half-mile range.
Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, highlighted his industry's own list of "facts about frac sand mining in Wisconsin," and offered a broad critique of the advocates' publication.
"The groups behind this report have a definite political and social agenda against sand mining, so their conclusions are not surprising," Budinger wrote in an email to HuffPost. "But their conclusions also fail to offer an accurate picture of sand mining in Wisconsin and the industry's major contributions to the state's communities and economy.
"There is no scientific evidence that ambient respirable crystalline silica that may be associated with sand mines poses a health risk," said Budinger, referring to the frac sand dust that tops advocates' concerns. He added that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other regulators "require air permits and fugitive dust control plans, which limit emissions and off-site impacts from dust."
Crispin Pierce, a professor of environmental health at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has been studying these potential health impacts for the last five years. He offered a different take during the media call.
The state regulatory agency, Pierce explained, requires fewer than 10 percent of the 140 frac sand operations in Wisconsin to monitor their emissions -- and not the fine particulate matter and silica that he said are the "most dangerous components" of those emissions. Further, the state asks the companies to monitor themselves.
Of tests conducted by the industry and by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, none have detected levels of pollution that exceeded federal standards, Pierce said.
"To overstate the certainty that these issues are causing problems is to dilute their importance," said Pierce. But he underscored "some real concerns," including "potential long-term exposures and increases in cardiovascular disease, premature death and lung cancer," as well as threats to water availability and quality.
A television station in Chippewa County, Wisconsin, reported last week that heavy rains had washed fine particles off a frac sand mine site and clouded a local waterway. Because state regulations for the mines are vague and "open to interpretation," mining companies can get away with the pollution, an engineer with the county suggested.
Illinois is among the most recent states facing a potential surge in strip-mining for frac sand. While its deposits remain largely untapped, that's changing fast, said Ashley Williams, a resident of Ottawa, Illinois.
She mentioned a battle HuffPost first covered in 2012, which continues over Mississippi Sand's proposed mine near the entrance of Starved Rock State Park. The bluffs, canyons, waterfalls and wildlife found there entice more than 2 million visitors each year.
The 425-million-year-old rock formations also contain some of the nation's highest quality frac sand, which has drawn the mining companies. Environmental groups, with help from lawyers and students at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, are fighting multiple mining permits around the state, including the one now held by Mississippi Sand.
"They're descending on our community like sand sharks," said Williams, "and it seems like there's no end in sight."
On December 5, 2013, the County Commissioners voted to amend the County's ordinance by adding the following items submitted by Save-the-Bluffs:
Here is the link to the final ordinance (see article 14): http://www.co.goodhue.mn.us/DocumentCenter/View/2428
On Nov 18, the County Planning Commission voted to pass 3 of 4 requested items submitted by Save-the-Bluffs:
The County Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the above items on Thursday, Dec 5th at 3pm (they meet on Tuesdays, so this is an anomaly). After the hearing, they will vote to accept or deny the amendments above. They could also vote to end the moratorium. Here’s what you need to know:
Time: 3:00 PM
Location: Room 301, Government Center(509 West 5th St) , Red Wing
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
With this note, I would like to share our initial findings of PM2.5 levels in New Auburn collected August 1-3, 2013. I appreciate the help that Dr. Dale and Carol Crisler provided in setting up sampling sites and collecting data.
Several observations can be taken from these initial data:
1. Measured PM2.5 levels with the Dylos (p and ¨) and DustTrak (X) were consistent with each other and generally below the EPA annual standard;
2. Measurements with all instruments found PM2.5 levels higher than DNR regional background levels (Ж); and
3. The SKC DPS gravimetric sampler (―) measured an average concentration of 51 ug/m3, much higher than levels from the direct-reading instruments and the EPA annual standard.
As I’ve noted before, the SKC DPS gravimetric sampler likely provides the best estimate of airborne PM2.5 levels, given its simple operation and lack of being influenced by humidity. The high level measured in the six-hour time period raises some concern and we will collect a 24-hour sample to verify this value.
Higher levels in the New Auburn area would be expected, compared to other locations in the state, due to the Superior Silica Sand and Chippewa Sands operations in the town, in addition to two additional sand facilities within about 15 miles. Reported PM10 levels from Superior Silica Sand from 12/5/2011 to 1/28/2013 averaged 16 ug/m3, with a range of 1-38 ug/m3.
Results of air filter composition by the Wisconsin Occupational Health Lab and kindly provided by Brian Henning at the New Auburn School found detectable levels of quartz (crystalline silica) in four of five filters analyzed to date. Filters from 100% outside air had higher levels of quartz than those that filtered a combination of outside and recirculated air.
Here is a collection of short video clips documenting our procedures and citizen comments on the project (these video clips may load slowly):
Playground and railroad:
Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.
Crispin H. Pierce, Ph.D.
Associate Professor / Program Director
Department of Public Health Professions
University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire
Eau Claire, WI 54702-4004
This article, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you: frac sand mining controversies gaining national stage," in Bluestem Prairie by Sally Jo Sorensen, discusses how the voices against industrial sand mining are getting their messages heard past the county line.
From Wall Street Journal, Online
—Alison Sider contributed to this article.
Write to Emily Glazer at email@example.com and Ryan Dezember at firstname.lastname@example.org
Preferred Sands Holding Co., a closely held supplier to oil-and-gas drillers, has hired restructuring advisers as it battles a high debt load and weak operating results, people familiar with the matter said.
The company may file for bankruptcy protection though it is still examining opportunities for an out-of-court restructuring, these people said. Barclays BARC.LN +0.40% PLC—the company's lender along with KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc.—could provide a debtor-in possession loan in the event of a Chapter 11 filing, they added.
Radnor, Pa.-based Preferred Sands, which employs about 500 people, has roughly $500 million in debt, these people said. It has annual sales of about $350 million, according to Moody's Investors Service Inc. Preferred Sands is majority-owned by its founder and chief executive Michael O'Neill, an entrepreneur who started as a Philadelphia banker.
"Preferred Sands is confident in its liquidity position," according to a company spokeswoman. "As part of a forbearance agreement reached with the lender group, the company is exploring all strategic alternatives and has flexibility to pursue any number of options. We do not believe a bankruptcy filing is necessary to implement the strategic alternatives being explored. Preferred is working diligently and constructively with its lenders and their advisers to fully resolve these issues."
Preferred Sands mines sand and supplies other materials used in shale drilling. It operates plants in Nebraska, Minnesota, Arizona, Wisconsin and Canada, and is able to churn out more than 6 million tons of sand a year, according to its website. Sand is an important component of the fluids drillers inject into the ground to help them extract oil and natural gas from rock formations using a technique called hydraulic fracturing.
Quantities of sand, or sometimes tiny ceramic beads, are mixed with water and chemicals and injected into wells with high pressure. That pressure causes the energy-bearing rocks to crack and forces grains of sand into the fissures, propping them open so that oil and gas can flow out.
Preferred Sands saw its sales rocket in recent years, amid a race to meet drillers' demand for sand. From 2010 to 2011 its revenue quadrupled, and it about doubled again the next year, according to Moody's, which said the company had sales of about $350 million for the 12-month period ending March 31. But the company's profits "deteriorated substantially in the second half of 2012 because of its exposure to less active natural gas basins, customers' failure to honor contractual commitments and a lower-quality product mix," Moody's said in a March report.
Low natural gas prices have prompted some energy producers to cut back on drilling at the same time that many new sand mines have come online, pressuring sand prices. The average price of sand used for hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. has fallen to $50 a ton from $75 a ton since the first half of 2012, according to research firm and strategy consultant PacWest Consulting Partners LLC.
Restructuring advisers at law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP are working with the company along with investment bank Evercore Group LLC, while FTI Consulting Inc. FCN +1.20% is working with the lenders, the people said.
Debtwire previously reported some details of the possible bankruptcy filing.
After 2 years of attending County Board meetings and planning meetings, we know the current Commissioners will never vote to ban frac-sand mining. So, for that same length of time, we have been working to get an ordinance that protects our health and way of life now and into the future.
The current ordinance controlling mining is much better than it was 2 years ago, but that does not mean it is ready for action. It has holes that need to be fixed before the moratorium is lifted. (Click here to print brochure.)
Here are links to several ordinances that are in the news:
Last Monday, Goodhue County Planning Commission recommended ending the moratorium against new frac-sand mines and processing in the county. The county’s contention is that the ordinance “covers everything.” As someone who has studied this for 2 years, I disagree. Here’s why:
An Overlay District was proposed by the County’s consultant, in 2012, and several people, ranging from Commissioners to landowners, have asked “where would frac-sand mining be allowed?” An Overlay District map answers this question.
The reason this map has not been created is two-fold: a) setbacks would be different for small gravel pits and large frac-sand mining/processing sites (the ordinance lumps them together), and b) a cost/benefit analysis that looks at the economic impact of frac-sand mining on the local economy has not been done. Greg Schreck, Lake City's Tourism Bureau director, has said frac-mining could destroy tourism in Lake City. The same would happen in Red Wing, Cannon Falls, and Zumbrota, of course. Just speak to business owners in McGregor, Maiden Rock, and Wood County.
The mining committee has done all it can, but that doesn’t mean the work is done and the moratorium should be lifted.