WI DNR Online frac sand Q and A chat session held Oct. 24

By Kelsie Hoitomt

On Wednesday, October 24 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website hosted a chat session with Tom Woletz.

Woletz has worked at the DNR for 38 years in almost all of the environmental programs. He has conducted many inspections of mines as a field engineer. He has an engineering degree from the University of Madison and is a registered Professional Engineer.

The chat lasted for two hours with the main questions revolving around air quality and ground water.

Here were a few questions from random people that were answered by Woletz:

It is my assumption that sand acts as a natural filtration device for infiltrated water. If the sand is being removed, what measures are in place for protecting contaminants from entering the water table?

“Sand does provide some filtration but it is probably not the best filtering material like fine grain soils would be. The best way to prevent groundwater contamination is to prevent spills of potentially hazardous materials at these sites before they occur.”

I live in the hotbed of frac sand mining and have a private well. Given the amount of water used to wash sand at a single plant, (the mining operation near my home uses 1 million plus gallons per day) how is this sustainable and what covers property investments for folks like me when the wells run dry and we have to shell out $30K to dig a deeper well? 

“We are finding that the hi capacity wells at these mines don’t operate at near their potential capacity. As part of our review we do look at water quantity issues at nearby wells. When you compare the amount of water used by these mines it is dwarfed by agricultural hi capacity wells.”

How many staff does the DNR have to keep tabs on permit compliance for air or water at the state’s frac sand mines?

“Difficult to say exactly as we have many staff in the air, storm water, hi capacity well and endangered species programs who are working on frac sand issues as part of their regular job. I am the only DNR employee who works solely on frac sand issues.”

What, if any, water pollution, air pollution issues have you been finding with the current operating mines within Wisconsin? There been much argument or “inconclusive suspicions” that air quality is going to be an issue but from what the research i’ve done, no active mine has problems wth not meeting EPA and DNR standards in the state. 

“Problems we have seen are fugitive dust issues, failures of storm water structures, construction of facilities not in accordance with their applications, failure to abandon exploratory boreholes. None of the air monitoring results thus far show any exceeding of DNR or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.”

Are there regulations or requirements on the “mud” that mining companies use to drill? What is the mud comprised of and does it have an impact (negative) on soils?

“We do not do any fracing in the state of Wisconsin. Most well drilling for drinking water uses some drilling mud, which is regulated by our well construction folks.”

What does DNR consider the greatest threat posed by frac sand mining (humanitarian concerns aside)? 

“Probably the biggest issue at a couple of these new mines has been failures in some of the storm water structures resulting in catastrophic releases of water and sediment.”

How many frac sand mines are there in Wisconsin? How many under review/consideration at? Does DNR have a public list or website anywhere listing mining sites and other relevant information? If not, it would be a great idea if there was.

“A question I get every day and a hard one to answer. Probably well over 40 processing plants and well over 70 mine. There are also many existing facilities that have been in operation and were mining or processing sand for other uses that have now switched to the frac sand market. They are not required to tell us where they are marketing there sand. Also we don’t track them until they come to us for a permit so we don’t have proposed mines or those undergoing local review.”

What studies have been done to ensure water quality does not go down from removal of silica sand?

“None.”

I understand that the state has no severance tax on frac sand, but do local governments have any tax on sand and gravel mining?

“None that I know of. Some local governments have imposed road maintenance fees to fix road issues caused by heavy truck traffic.”

Does the DNR view mining as a positive or a negative within the state of Wisconsin?

“We have no view on it other than it needs to be done in a manner that the public health and environment is protected.”

How long has silica sand mining occurred in WI and in your experience has the scale of silica sand mine changed?

“Probably for well over 100 years. However the scale of these mines has changed drastically. They are much larger than our typical non metallic mines and remove mineral at a much faster rate.”

As a nurse, I am concerned about the effects of silicosis on residents who are living close to those mines. We need to know that these people have protections.

“Review of available studies by DNR and Division of Health have not revealed that silica emission from these mines and processing facilities would pose a health threat to people living nearby. Again good fugitive dust controls should assure that the ambient air quality standards for all particulates are being met.”

Is the DNR working with the newly formed Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association?

“We have a meeting scheduled with them on November 9, 2012.”

I am told that all frac sand mines pollute the groundwater, is this true? How many confirmed cases of groundwater contamination are there at frac sand mines or plants?

“I don’t believe that is true. We don’t have any documented cases that I know of where a frac sand mine has polluted the groundwater or anyone’s well.”

What hazardous materials are used in the frac sand mining process? Have there been any releases of these materials at mine sites?

“None in the process that I am aware of. They may have products such as diesel, gas, oil, hydraulic lubricants, that could pose a contamination hazard if they leaked but there are no releases I am aware of.”

Does the DNR test for chemicals like acrylamides in drinking water as a result of sand washing facilities using polyacrylamides? 

“No we have no groundwater standard for acrylamides however Chippewa County is doing some testing and they have no detects.”

With the fugitive dust issues, failures of storm water structures, construction of facilities not in accordance with their applications and failure to abandon exploratory boreholes, what type of penalties are they incurring for these? Are they enough to keep them from proceeding with the same action?

“We have a stepped enforcement policy for all environmental violations no matter where they occur. We try to resolve them at the lowest possible level. Most of our environmental violations do not have citation authority so fines are only administered for the most egregious violations and they are done through the Department of Justice.”

More of this information can be found online at the Department of Natural Resources website.