By LeAnn R. Ralph
TOWN OF HOWARD — What happened to all of the tables and chairs?
That was the question area residents asked themselves when they came to the Howard Town Hall February 24 to comment on what they would like to see the state Department of Natural Resources include in a strategic analysis of industrial frac sand mining.
Instead of the tables and chairs that are usually present in the Howard Town Hall, people found a wide-open empty space.
The meeting was conducted by representatives of Midwest Environmental Advocates, the non-profit agency that wrote the petition signed by more than 1,000 residents in this part of Wisconsin submitted to the Natural Resources Board last fall requesting a strategic analysis of industrial frac sand mining.
In January, the NRB — on the recommendation of the DNR — directed the DNR to conduct the study.
The first step of the strategic analysis is to determine the scope of the study.
And that was why all of the tables and chairs had been removed from the town hall.
One of the firefighters from the Chippewa Fire District who serves at the Howard fire hall objected to the non-profit organization Midwest Environmental Advocates using the town hall to gather public comments without being charged a fee for using the town hall, said Town of Howard resident Ken Schmitt of Colfax.
The firefighter said all of the tables and chairs belonged to the firefighters and took it upon himself to remove the furniture from the room, he said.
Schmitt noted that the Howard Town Board has a policy of offering the use of the town hall to non-profit organizations and wondered how the Howard Town Board planned to hold its next meeting the first week of March without any tables and chairs.
Several small card tables and a few folding chairs were rounded up and set out in the town hall.
Those who attended the meeting stood around the perimeter of the room, waiting for their turn to speak or to submit their written comments.
“I’m sorry our chairs were taken away … it’s too bad some people are afraid of democracy,” said Kim Wright of MEA.
Those who spoke listed many topics they would like to see covered in the DNR’s study of industrial frac sand mining: the amount of crystalline silica in areas around sand mines and how far it travels; respiratory health effects of blowing sand dust; damage caused by stormwater run-off and what chemicals are in the run-off; whether retention ponds are leaking; whether heavy metals in the sand formations are leaching into the groundwater; the effect of acrylamide (used as a flocculent) on the environment; whether mining to within five feet of the groundwater is too close; the adequacy of reclamation plans to restore the area after mining is completed; the effects of blasting on underground rock formations and the groundwater; whether the DNR’s regulations are adequate for industrial sand mining when the regulations were originally developed for small sand and gravel pits.
Wright said the DNR plans to use an on-line service called a Survey Monkey to gather comments from the public about the scope of the industrial frac sand strategic analysis.
MEA wanted to give people the opportunity to speak and to submit their comments in person, she said.
Wright said she had received assurances from the chair of the Natural Resources Board that all of the comments gathered by MEA would be accepted into the record for the DNR’s scoping process.
The DNR is expecting to take about ten months to complete the strategic analysis. At that point, the study will come back to the public for review and further comment, Wright said.
The DNR will then hold public hearings on the strategic analysis, she said.
Wright said DNR officials may be planning to use an on-line Survey Monkey because the agency does not feel it has enough resources to hold public meetings.
Channel 12 out of Milwaukee and at least one local television station and a radio station covered the meeting.
On the evening of February 24, a strong wind out of the north that had been blowing all day howled around the Howard Town Hall, causing the building to creak and shudder in the wind.
“The DNR should see this (50 mph hour wind)… I’m sure the silica sand in New Auburn is here by now,” commented one woman in the audience.
Those who spoke about what should be included in the strategic analysis expressed anxiety, anger and deep concern.
Existing DNR regulations are inadequate to protect the environment and the health, safety and welfare of the general public, said one person.
Another woman said she had asked the DNR for information on air particulates and was directed to a study from the 1990s.
Arsenic is present in the sand formations — is the arsenic exposed during sand mining? she asked.
Schmitt noted that in a 2011 silica study done by the DNR, the report stated, “since particle sizes (of silica sand) are not known and emission estimates are uncertain, it is not possible to quantify how far silica travels from the source.”
Thousands of acres of sand mines are open and are being mined in a small geographical area, he said.
The cumulative impacts of multiple mine sites on surface and groundwater and air quality should be studied in the winter and in the summer during both wet and dry periods, said Schmitt, who farms in the Town of Howard.
Dog and pony
Lenny Shier of New Auburn said he is disgusted by the DNR’s lack of protection for citizens and called the DNR’s handling of the sand mines “a dog and pony show.”
The DNR is more concerned with enforcing hunting and fishing regulations than in enforcing regulations for a sand mine, he said.
“We do not have the state government or the DNR protecting residents,” Shier said, noting that the noise of the trains in New Auburn have driven him and his wife into living in the basement of their home.
No environmental studies have been done on sand mining, but the sand mines have been allowed to grow and expand in number, he said.
Willem Gebben of Colfax said it is important to conduct the strategic analysis of industrial frac sand mining but that studies should have been done before sand mining started because the mining will result in permanent and irreversible changes to the environment.
Gebben, who is a potter, said his business relies on people coming from the Twin Cities who also come to Western Wisconsin for the biking and hiking trails and the scenic beauty.
Gebben said he doubted people would say, “Hey honey. Let’s load up the kids and go see the strip mines.”
Pat Popple of Chippewa Falls said she believes one of the most important issues about sand mining is heavy metals leaching into the groundwater.
Popple said she had attended a seminar put on by the Wisconsin Towns Association last June and that one of the speakers from the DNR said there is a concern with high capacity wells and heavy metals in the water.
The Tunnel City sand formation is between the Wonewoc formation and the Jordan formation. When the Tunnel City is disturbed, it exposes sulfides, Popple said.
In Barron County, the water has a very low pH, and in low pH conditions, sulfides will cause heavy metal to leach into the groundwater, she said.
The gentleman from the DNR said the groundwater is being polluted by heavy metals, Popple said.
One well in Turtle Lake was replaced because it was contaminated heavily with arsenic, and two wells near LaCrosse had to be replaced because of other heavy metals in the water, she said.
Popple also said she is concerned with the “waste” sand that is being hauled back from the processing plants and returned to the mines.
Preventing heavy metals from leaching into the groundwater from the waste sand brought back to mine sites would require a containment system using clay liners or plastic, she said, noting that it would be difficult to cover a 2,000 acre sand mine with a clay liner or a plastic liner.
Mine reclamation was another concern among those who spoke.
Ken Lestrud of Menomonie said he has a degree in forestry and wondered whether the sand mines can actually be reclaimed for a useful purpose.
Lestrud said he had served two tours in Vietnam.
“I was dumb enough to think I was fighting for (our) rights,” he said, adding that when it comes to sand mines, the big corporations seem to have all of the rights but individuals have no rights.
Jerry Lausted of Menomonie, who owns farms in the Town of Red Cedar and the Town of Tainter, said he has a degree in agriculture and 75 credits in environmental studies post-graduate.
Sand mines remove the ground cover that slows down stormwater runoff, he pointed out.
Colloidal clay in the runoff from the sand mines clogs the settling ponds, then the settling ponds “blow out” and wetlands are polluted, Lausted said, wondering how many acres of wetlands per year would be polluted by the sand mines.
The lumber barons destroyed the forests in this area 125 years ago, but about 40 percent of the forests have returned, he said.
Lausted wondered what will remain 125 years from now where the sand mines are located.
Additional meetings to gather comments were held in Mondovi on March 2 and in Black River Falls March 4.
Anyone wishing to submit comments to the DNR about the scope of the strategic study on industrial frac sand mining can e-mail DNROEEAComments@wisconsin.gov or can send comments by mail to Chris Willger; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; 1300 W. Clairemont Road; Eau Claire WI 54701.