Skip to content

DNR analysis: Sand mines not expected to impact air quality but could impact wetlands

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MADISON  —  According to a report  written by the state Department of Natural Resources, frac sand mining is not expected to have a negative impact on air quality but could have a cumulative impact on wetlands.

The draft of the 155-page strategic analysis of Industrial Sand Mining (ISM) in Wisconsin states, “particulate emissions are addressed by existing regulations and monitoring data have not identified problematic air quality at sand mining and processing sites.”

The report goes on to say, “as a result of existing regulations and the permitting and compliance activities described, health related impacts from industrial sand facilities are not likely to be an issue.”

Fugitive dust from sand mines, however, could cause nuisance conditions close to frac sand mines.

“This can be addressed within the current DNR industrial sand regulatory scheme by assuring that a facility’s fugitive dust control plan is up to date and is being implemented,” according to the strategic analysis.

In the section on wetlands, the strategic analysis points out that, “given the potential for multiple activities surrounding the industry (other mines, rail lines, roads and other projects), additional impacts from recent and future ISM [industrial sand mine] projects taken in combination, the industry has the potential to contribute to significant cumulative impacts to wetlands regionally. The wetland permit processes do not have a direct way of evaluating or preventing such large scale cumulative impacts.”

Members of the public will have until August 22 to submit their written comments about the 155 page report.

The strategic analysis is described as an informational document to assist the public and policymakers when making decisions that pertain to industrial sand mining.

More than 1,000 residents in West Central Wisconsin signed a petition asking the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board to authorize a strategic analysis of frac sand mining.

In January of 2015, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board — on the recommendation of the DNR — directed the DNR to conduct the study.

During a public meeting at the Howard Town Hall in February of 2015, area residents spoke about the components they wanted to see included in the strategic analysis.

The 155-page analysis is an expansion of the DNR’s 2012 Silica Sand Mining white paper.

There are currently nearly 130 industrial sand mine facilities in Wisconsin.

Over the last five years, a number of frac sand mines have been developed in this area in Chippewa County, Eau Claire County and Barron County.

Known as the Albertville Valley mine, a nearly 2,000 acre frac sand mine with a processing facility and a shipping facility has been proposed in the Town of Howard southeast of Colfax.

The strategic analysis includes factual information about the sand mining industry, typical operations, air quality, water quality, wetlands, groundwater, wildlife, endangered resources and socio-economics.


Every county in Wisconsin is required to implement a non-metallic mining reclamation permit program that comes under DNR oversight.

The reclamation permit programs are meant to make sure mine sites are reclaimed to a suitable post-mining land use.

According to the strategic analysis, the most common permit violations for frac sand mines involve erosion control or stormwater management and not obtaining the proper permits.

The report notes the pollution of Eighteen Mile Creek in Colfax in September of 2014 after five or six inches of rain fell over a several-hour period.

The runoff from the rain storm overwhelmed the stormwater management system of the Dennis Schindler mine operated by EOG Resources in the Town of Cooks Valley, causing the detention ponds to overflow into Running Valley Creek, a tributary of Eighteen Mile Creek, and eventually, into Eighteen Mile Creek.

Both creeks are listed as Class II trout streams.

The water in Eighteen Mile Creek was filled with clay sediment for at least a week after the rain event.

A DNR survey of both creeks did not reveal any dead fish.

According to the strategic analysis, “no impact was documented to the fish community at that time, though it is still possible that there will be long-term impacts. Since the overtopping event occurred, the sand mining company has invested in new, larger stormwater detention ponds.”


According to the strategic analysis, Wisconsin has 84,000 miles of streams and 1.2 million acres of lakes.

The streams amount to about 1.5 miles of stream for every one square mile of land area, and lakes and impoundments account for about 3.35 percent of the total surface area of the state.

The strategic analysis notes that more than 47 percent of Wisconsin’s original wetlands have been lost, although about 5.3 million acres of wetland remain.

Wetlands are important for a variety of reasons: stormwater and flood water storage; groundwater recharge and discharge; water filtering; protection of shorelines; habitat for wildlife and aquatic organisms; recreational, cultural, educational, scientific, and natural scenic beauty.

According to the strategic analysis, “since 2008, the DNR has issued 41 wetland individual permits and 18 wetland general permits to 31 different permit applicants for activities association with the (industrial sand mine) industry across eight of the 13 counties most greatly affected by the sand mining industry, totaling approximately 26 acres of permanent wetland impacts.”

The report goes on to say, “Barron, Chippewa, Monroe, Trempealeau and Eau Claire counties have had the greatest amount of total wetland fill acreages authorized for (industrial sand mine) activities. Coincidentally, Barron, Chippewa, Monroe and Eau Claire counties are all estimated to have greater than 20 percent wetland indicator soils as a percentage of total county area, with Chippewa nearing 35 percent.”

High capacity wells

In July of 2011, in response to a 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, the DNR changed its procedures to review each application for a high capacity well to determine whether the well, along with other nearby high capacity wells, would have an adverse impact on waters of the state.

Waters of the state included streams, lakes, wetlands, and public and private wells.

When it was determined that the high capacity well would have an impact on waters of the state, the DNR would either deny or modify the high capacity well permit.

The DNR used this permitting process from 2011 until May of 2016 when the Wisconsin Attorney General issued an opinion on the DNR’s authority to consider environmental impacts for high capacity well applications.

According to the attorney general, in 2011 Act 21, “the Legislature has defined the parameters in which DNR can act to protect the state’s navigable waters and additionally has clarified the ways in which DNR can regulate non-navigable waters.”

The attorney general concluded that the DNR can only conduct an environmental review of a high capacity well if it affects a well in a groundwater protection area with a water loss of more than 95 percent of the water withdrawn, or can conduct an environmental review if a high capacity well may have an impact on a spring or if it impacts the water supply of a public utility.

The DNR now reviews permit applications for high capacity wells in accordance with the attorney general’s opinion.

The strategic analysis notes that the number of high capacity wells approved for industrial sand mine applicants increased from 35 in 2011 to 65 in 2014.

Sand mine sites active in 2011 had an average withdrawal capacity of 2.5 million gallons per day whereas sites that became active after 2011 have an average capacity of 1.4 million gallons per day.

In addition, the daily withdrawal capacity for sand mine properties ranges from the smallest site at 200,000 gallons per day to the largest sand mine site capable of withdrawing 7 million gallons per day. The average sand mine site is capable of withdrawing 1.8 million gallons per day.

The total statewide withdrawal of water for sand mines went from 1.4 billion gallons in 2011 to 1.8 billion gallons in 2014, according to the strategic analysis.


A public hearing on the strategic analysis of industrial sand mining will be held July 26 at 4 p.m. at the Chippewa Valley Technical College Business Education Center, in the Casper Conference Center, Room 103A/B, 620 W. Clairemont Avenue in Eau Claire.

The DNR also will accept written comments on the strategic analysis until August 22.

Written comments can be submitted by e-mail to or by regular United States mail to ISM SA Coordinator; WDNR OB/7; P.O. Box 7921; Madison, WI 53707-7921.