A new Land Stewardship Project report claims to show that the frac sand mining industry in Wisconsin is systemically disregarding state regulations, a red flag to communities in Minnesota that are grappling with the onslaught of this industrial activity. The report, which is reportedly based on an analysis of public data and news reports, also documented over a dozen instances of influence peddling and conflicts of interest within the industry.
- Of the 47 frac sand companies currently operating in Wisconsin, 24, or 51 percent, have seriously violated Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regulations, manipulated local governments, or engaged in influence peddling and conflicts of interest.
- Twenty of 47 companies (43 percent) not only violated DNR regulations, but they required substantial regulatory action to come into compliance — or, even worse, never came into compliance even after court action and fines. (One county-level regulator was quoted as saying, "…citations are pretty much ineffective for this industry.")
- In total, between 2011 and 2014 there were at least 19 cases of frac sand companies abusing the annexation process to avoid regulations, engaging in influence peddling, and creating conflicts of interest in local governments.
"It appears an unwillingness to spend the resources to follow regulations and minimize pollution is part of the frac sand industry's business model," said Land Stewardship Project member Marilyn Frauenkron-Bayer of Minnesota's Houston County. Houston County is at the heart of an effort to greatly expand frac sand mining in the Upper Midwest. "When you couple the inherently destructive process of industrial-scale strip mining for frac sand with companies blatantly disregarding the rules designed to protect the community, you have a disaster."
The report found violations among companies of varying sizes, including the nation's largest provider of frac sand, the Unimin Corporation, which began construction without a permit at its Tunnel City mine in southwestern Wisconsin. The violations described in the report range from problems with air quality and illegal drilling/construction, to sediment and wastewater spills.
In addition to violations of DNR regulations, manipulation of local governments is widespread in the industry, the report found. Frac sand companies routinely use promises of tax revenue and other financial contributions to persuade city governments to annex mine sites from counties and townships, exempting the mines from county laws like moratoriums. Threats of annexation and the complete loss of local control have pressured local governments into relaxing their regulations. The LSP report has compiled cases of frac sand companies hiring local government officials or leasing land from them, creating clear conflicts of interest.
Despite this abysmal record, the frac sand industry still portrays the problem as one of "a few bad apples" and refuses to acknowledge the extent of the problem, according to Stephanie Porter, a Land Stewardship Project organizer and the author of the report. This should serve as a warning to any community in Minnesota that is facing the threat of a frac sand mining operation moving into the community, she said.
"The facts are clear," said Bayer. "The frac sand industry has a pervasive record of violating state regulations. In their rush to make money, they show little or no concern for regulations, much less their neighbors' safety."
Update: Portions of the original report have now been retracted. Read about the retractions here.