DNR still considering enforcement for frac sand pollution in 18 Mile Creek

TOWN OF HOWARD — State Department of Natural Resources officials are still considering whether they can take any enforcement action for frac sand pollution in 18 Mile Creek from the EOG Resources mine in Cooks Valley.

Deb Dix, the DNR’s state-wide liaison for frac sand mining, spoke at the Howard Town Hall October 7 about 18 Mile Creek and other issues associated with frac sand mining.

About 50 people attended the meeting.

“I cannot be specific until we hear all the details (about 18 Mile Creek).

We won’t know the enforcement until we get there,” Dix said.

Mark Berge, a Town of Cooks Valley resident who lives near the EOG Resources DS mine, bristled.

“Why don’t I get to know? They have been discharging onto my property all summer long,” Berge said.

DNR officials were planning to meet with representatives for EOG Resources the next day, and it would be the first of several meetings, Dix said.

Berge invited Dix and anyone else from the DNR to walk his property “to see the mess.”

A rainstorm the evening of September 3 dumped between two and three inches of rain on the area in a short period of time.

By September 5, colloidal clay runoff from the DS mine had traveled about six miles cross country, much of it through marsh, and had turned 18 Mile Creek through Colfax a thick-looking caramel color.

The water in 18 Mile Creek remained caramel colored for more than a week.

After the fine clay particles become suspended in the water, they tend to stay in suspension.

Berge was the first person to contact the Colfax Messenger about the colloidal clay runoff from the DS mine.

Runoff from the mine is intended to collect in a holding pond that allows the rain water to infiltrate before the next rain event.

Permits

The stormwater permit that is available for the DNR to issue for sand mines was intended for small sand and gravel operations, Dix said.

The colloidal clay discharge from industrial sand mines “is something new that was not taken into account when the permit was written,” she said.

Chippewa County currently has ten sand mines in operation, and several more sand mines are proposed.

One proposed sand mine in the Town of Howard alone would cover two thousand acres.

The DNR currently is working on updates for the stormwater permit, Dix said.

Initially, all sand mining companies want the mines to be drained internally, but not one of them, on start up, can be internally drained, so they are all externally drained, Dix said.

The mines are supposed to manage their stormwater and not discharge it until it is clean, she said.

The DNR regulates both stormwater and wastewater. When stormwater mingles with wastewater, it becomes wastewater, Dix said.

Sand mines are supposed to limit their stormwater discharge to the maximum extent practicable, and the cost of management is taken into consideration, Dix said.

When wastewater is discharged, there is a limit of 40 milligrams of sediment per liter, she said.

Berge said that representatives from the Chippewa County land conservation office had collected water samples on his property, and the discharge from the DS mine had contained more than 12,000 milligrams of sediment per liter.

“We are not dropping it. We are not saying we can’t do anything … we’re looking at the whole picture before moving ahead to see where we’re going,” Dix said.

DNR fishery staff and a DNR water resource biologist also have been assessing the situation, she said.

Chuck Flodquist, who farms downstream from Mark Berge, said there was a significant amount of water coming through his place right after the September 3 rainstorm.

The water tapered off, but then on Friday, September 5, there was “a lot of water” again, he said.

Flodquist said he tried to call the DNR but everyone he talked to referred him to someone else.

Seth Ebel of Chippewa County land conservation was the first person to take a look at what had happened on his farm.

“There was a half an inch of clay on everything,” Flodquist said.

Regulations

This area of Wisconsin is already experiencing issues with sand mines, and now there are thousands of acres of new mines being proposed, said Town of Howard resident Susan LaNou.

The DNR has no ability to say “no” if the sand mines meet the permit requirements, Dix said.

The DNR cannot propose legislation. Representatives and senators in this area must propose legislation to the state Legislature, she said.

“Our local state Assemblyman has no clue. Nothing will happen in Madison,” Berge said.

Tom Larson of Colfax is the representative for the state’s 67th Assembly District that covers Chippewa County and much of Dunn County.

Representative Larson “knows what is going on, but he doesn’t care,” said one gentleman in the audience.

The best way to draw attention to the problems with sand mining is to write letters to the DNR secretary “so they understand how large the issue is,” Dix said, adding, “they do not realize it in Madison.”

The petition to the Natural Resources Board asking for a strategic analysis of sand mining “is a good start,” she said.

Midwest Environmental Advocates has written the petition. After signatures have been gathered, MEA plans to submit the petition to the Natural Resources Board in October or November.

Two years ago, members of the Natural Resources Board came to look at sand mines, but they only looked at “the better sites,” said Ken Schmitt, a Town of Howard resident.

Area residents must “inundate” the DNR secretary with letters and provide specific details about what has been seen and experienced in the sand mining areas, Dix said.

A good example would be the September rain event and the observation of the amount of water slowing down and then seeing another flush and the subsequent clay accumulation, she said.

People should write and talk about “realistic things that are tangible,” Dix said.

Writing to the state health department also would be a good strategy, she said.

Reclamation

Another sand mining topic Dix addressed was mine reclamation.

Several people in the audience wondered how agriculture could be one of the accepted end results of mine reclamation after the sandstone filter for the groundwater has been removed.

If the sandstone filter has been removed, farm chemicals or other contaminants will be able to easily get into the groundwater, they said.

If the reclamation plan is to bring the land back to agriculture, the mine operators have to prove that they have achieved the proposed end use, Dix said.

“Six inches of topsoil on rock is not farmland,” she said, adding that she hoped the county land conservation offices in mining areas would not accept such a proposal.

One gentleman in the audience mentioned the topsoil study in Chippewa County being conducted in conjunction with UW-River Falls.

The first test plot will grow native grasses and prairie plants and will not be a farm field that can be plowed and planted to corn, he said.

Dix said if the end use for mine reclamation is agriculture, she “would like to see enough to till.”

Bore holes

Several people also mentioned bore holes and that people exploring for frac sand do not always close the holes when they are finished prospecting.

The exploration companies are required to submit bore hole abandonment forms, and one company wants to keep those forms confidential, Dix said.

The DNR is fighting the idea that the abandonment forms should be confidential, she said.

If the bore holes are over ten feet deep or if they intersect with the groundwater, the companies are required to properly abandon the holes with bentonite and report that they have abandoned the holes, Dix said.

As of October 1, the DNR has citation authority for boreholes, Schmitt said, and Dix confirmed that it was true.

“If they can’t close bore holes, what makes you think they can run a sand mine?” commented one person in the audience.

What many people do not realize is that if the mine operator walks away and does not close the bore holes or does not do the mine reclamation, it is the landowner’s responsibility to fix it, Dix said.

People who attended the meeting also talked about fugitive dust from the sand mines, sand blowing off the mine faces and sand blowing off trucks hauling the sand.

One gentleman in the audience predicted that a marsh he has observed next to a sand mine will be filled in with blowing sand within ten years.

Dix said the air emissions permits are complicated and that a DNR air emissions engineer would be better equipped to answer their questions.

Anyone wishing to contact Dix about problems with sand mining can call her at (715) 421-7809 or (715) 421-9914 (cell).

Dix is the interim frac sand liaison and previously worked in DNR enforcement.

The DNR is planning to hire someone to permanently fill the position, and after a replacement is hired, Dix will go back to working in enforcement.

Dix was appointed the interim frac sand liaison after Tom Woletz retired last year.