By LeAnn R. Ralph
NEW AUBURN — Governor Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-2017 budget would eliminate between 60 and 70 scientists from the state Department of Natural Resources.
And that has constituents wondering who would be left to conduct the strategic analysis of frac sand mining.
State Senator Terry Moulton (R-Chippewa Falls) (Senate District 23) and state Representative Tom Larson (R-Colfax) (67th Assembly District) held a listening session in New Auburn on March 9.
About 30 people attended the listening session, and several people expressed concern about the loss of DNR scientists, the proliferation of frac sand mines in western Wisconsin, the proposed change to make the Natural Resources Board advisory only, and the moratorium on the state’s stewardship program.
A couple of people said they were concerned about the health, safety and welfare of those living in the areas where frac sand mining is underway.
One woman said that silicosis would be a huge health cost not only for people but also for livestock and wildlife.
Silica dust is like “inhaling ground glass,” she said.
At this point, no one knows what the health risks are, if any, for silicosis (a lung disease caused by inhaling respirable crystalline silica) in areas where industrial frac sand mining is taking place.
The DNR is going to do a study of the health impacts of frac sand mining, said Senator Moulton, who noted that the frac sand mines have created jobs in western Wisconsin.
Several people in the audience pointed out that the governor’s proposed budget would eliminate more than 60 scientists from the DNR.
The DNR could not afford to send representatives out to gather public comments on the scope of the frac sand study, so how is the agency going to be able to afford to study the issue? one woman asked.
Midwest Environmental Advocates, the agency that wrote the petition asking the Natural Resources Board for a strategic study of frac sand mining, sent out their own representatives to three meetings to gather public comments for the DNR.
Another person said that frac sand mining should have been studied before the first mines were developed and asked that Representative Larson and Senator Moulton consider sponsoring a statewide moratorium on sand mining until the study can be completed.
“We are not debating the issue,” Senator Moulton replied.
Another person wondered how organic farming operations were going to keep their certification if sand dust coats their water and their animal feed and forage and asked if the state legislature had any plans to develop regulations for setbacks.
Colfax resident Willem Gebben said he, too, was concerned about the budget cuts to the DNR and the elimination of scientists.
The positions are supported by hunting license and fishing license fees, he said.
“Who will do the study if there are no scientists?” Gebben asked.
One person in the audience said he would prefer that the DNR remain science-based and education-based rather than lobbyist-based.
Several people said they were concerned as well about the proposal to make the Natural Resources Board an advisory-only board.
“Advisory is ill-advised. Sixty-six scientists will be lost. We need more science, not less,” said Town of Colfax resident Kathy Stahl.
Stahl noted that she had moved to the Town of Colfax 30 years ago and that now there is a proposal for a 1,300 acre sand mine next door in the Town of Howard.
“I did not move there to live next to an industrial zone,” she said.
Senator Moulton said that he, too, had concerns about the Natural Resources Board being made into an advisory-only board and that changes to the NRB would be a policy issue and did not belong in the budget.
Stahl said, too, that she was a member of Prairie Enthusiasts and was concerned about the governor’s proposal for a 13-year moratorium on purchasing land with stewardship funds.
Grassland birds have declined by 77 percent because of a lack of habitat, and the stewardship fund makes it possible to purchase some of those environmentally sensitive habitats that may not become available again, she said.
The Nelson-Knowles Stewardship Program began in 1990 and has preserved parcels of land for parks, hunting and hiking, and to protect forests and waterways and environmentally sensitive areas.
Another concern for constituents who attended the listening session was the potential loss of local control for sand mining operations.
Several bills introduced by Senator Tom Tiffany last year would have removed local control of the sand mines so that municipalities would not be able to have their own mine licensing ordinances and would not be able to draft mining agreements with sand mine companies to set hours of operation, to set blasting schedules, and to establish haul routes.
“We are asking you to vote against taking away local control,” said one person.
The majority of the state legislators do not know what Western Wisconsin is going through, said another person.
Senator Moulton noted that both he and Representative Larson had been opposed to the Tiffany bills for taking away local control and would continue to oppose such a proposal.
Taking away local control of the sand mines is not in the proposed budget, Senator Moulton said.