By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Perhaps you have noticed the color of 18 Mile Creek in Colfax lately — a sort of a thick, chalky, caramel color.
The sediment in the creek became visible September 5 and was still visible more than a week later following torrential rain that fell on the area September 3.
The color of the water in 18 Mile Creek was due to colloidal clay and was the result of runoff from the EOG Resources frac sand mine on the Dennis Schindler property in Town of Cooks Valley, said Jim Devlin, a wastewater specialist from the Baldwin office of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The DS sand mine is about five miles northeast of Colfax.
Devlin said he had walked through marshland to trace the sediment back to the DS mine.
Colfax resident Mark Berge, who lives near the DS mine, alerted the Colfax Messenger to the likely source of the sediment on Friday, September 5.
On Monday, September 8, Ted Ludwig, a member of the Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association, said he, too, had followed the source of the sediment to the DS mine.
18 Mile Creek empties into the Red Cedar River at Colfax, and the Red Cedar River flows into Tainter Lake. Toxic algae blooms in Tainter Lake are fueled by phosphorus that enters the lake through stormwater runoff.
Ludwig and Ron Verdon, president of TMLIA, both said they were deeply concerned about the sediment in 18 Mile Creek and the implications for the trout stream, the Red Cedar River and the lake
The DNR restored 18 Mile Creek as a trout stream through Colfax in 1998.
Mark Mosey, a biology teacher at Colfax High School who lives next to 18 Mile Creek, said he had noticed the sediment on Sunday, September 7, when he went for a walk along the creek after being out of town for the weekend.
“That stream has never looked like that before,” Mosey said.
In the past after a heavy rain, any sediment in the creek would clear out after a day, but sediment in the creek has never been this color or lasted this long, he said.
Curious as to where the sediment could be coming from, Mosey said he took a drive east of Colfax on state Highway 40 and north on county Highway A and then right on 990th Street.
“The stream was colorful through there, and there were puddles that same color in the marsh,” he said.
Mosey reported the sediment in 18 Mile Creek to the DNR’s tip line.
“My students have been taking water samples every day and measuring the turbidity,” Mosey said during a telephone conversation on Thursday.
“Turbidity” is a numeric measurement of cloudiness in the water.
Mosey also noted that he had taken water samples from 18 Mile Creek at 7:30 p.m. that Sunday evening and that the sediment in a sample jar of water, which is sitting in his classroom, had not started to settle out four days later.
Devlin says he has had a sample jar of water with colloidal clay from a different sand mine sitting on his desk for two or three months that never settled out.
The colloidal clay “stays in suspension,” Devlin said.
Devlin pointed out that following the torrential rain on September 3, it was not only the DS mine in Chippewa County that was discharging colloidal clay to nearby streams.
“That was not the only one with discharge … there were quite a few mines discharging colloidal material,” he said.
“It was a problem with all of the mine sites that we looked at,” Devlin said.
Dan Masterpole of the Chippewa County land conservation office noted that the stormwater retention ponds at the sand mines are designed to start out dry, to fill up when it rains, to infiltrate into the ground before the next rain and then to fill up again.
The problem this year, Masterpole said, has been the high amount of rainfall.
The water does not have a chance to infiltrate into the ground from the stormwater retention ponds before the next rainfall occurs, he said.
Both Devlin and Masterpole said, however, that large amounts of rain are not an excuse for the sand mines to discharge colloidal clay into nearby streams.
From the DNR’s perspective, another part of the problem is the general stormwater runoff permit that is available for DNR personnel to issue to the sand mines.
“The permit we have was not intended for this size of an industry,” Devlin said.
Chippewa County has about 3,000 acres under permit for frac sand mining — or to be more precise, 3,000 acres permitted for sand mine reclamation.
All together, Wisconsin has more than 100 permitted or operational frac sand mines and processing facilities to produce sand for hydraulic fracturing used to extract oil and natural gas.
The existing stormwater runoff permit requires the sand mines to “reduce the total suspended solids,” but the permit does not contain a numerical measurement for sediment, Devlin said.
DNR personnel are working on a rewrite of the stormwater runoff permit, he said.
Devlin also said he planned to meet the week of September 15 with DNR enforcement officials to determine whether the runoff into 18 Mile Creek was an enforceable violation of the stormwater runoff permit.
According to an e-mail from K. Leonard, a spokesperson for EOG Resources out of Houston, Texas, “following several above-average rainfall events which occurred in Chippewa County this year, EOG Resources and its mining contractor have been working with both Chippewa County Land Conservation and Forest Management and with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to improve storm water handling related to its mining practices.”
The e-mail also states, “EOG is working with individual landowners to address the issues they have raised and has increased the frequency of storm water pond maintenance at its mine sites. In addition, the company has initiated an engineering study to identify what steps can be taken in the future to further address the situation. As in the past, EOG remains committed to work with members of the community to act as a good neighbor.”
The Colfax Messenger asked EOG Resources to comment specifically on the runoff from the DS mine that has entered 18 Mile Creek and what is being done to correct it.
The Messenger has received several telephone calls from area residents concerned about the sediment in 18 Mile Creek.
Mosey said a number of people have asked him about the sediment in the creek as well.
Devlin said he, too, has received a variety of complaints and that citizens have e-mailed pictures of 18 Mile Creek.