Bill Berry: Vinehout fighting uphill battle on frac sand mines

Bill Berry: Vinehout fighting uphill battle on frac sand mines

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Imagine if you owned a home on some land in the beautiful coulee country of southwestern Wisconsin only to learn that a frac sand mine is planned for property adjacent to yours.

Likely, a huge mining operation will be your new neighbor. Your property value is going to plummet, to say nothing of your quality of life. Current state law basically says, “Tough luck, buddy.”

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout lives in Alma, in the heart of frac sand country. She hears a constant stream of concerns about the impacts of frac sand mining on communities and people in her district. Vinehout has proposed a modest set of bills addressing these concerns. She’s hoping to get a hearing on the bills.

Unfortunately, the fox is guarding the chicken coop. State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, chairs the Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Forestry, Mining and Revenue. His response to the concerns of people in frac sand country? Wisconsin already has “good regulations in place.” Tiffany, the guy who led the charge for weakening Wisconsin’s metallic mining laws, gets to decide whether Vinehout’s bills get a hearing.

If the system worked the way it should, there wouldn’t be any question. This is a huge issue impacting thousands of people. Tiffany would schedule a hearing, and the bills would sink or swim on their own merits. But that’s not how things work in Wisconsin any more. Tiffany received $74,915 from special interests that wanted to weaken Wisconsin’s mining laws. Chances are, he isn’t about to do a turnabout just because every day people are impacted by frac sand mining.

It’s not like the bills are meant to completely block frac sand mines. One would require the governing body that considers frac sand mine applications to publish newspaper notices at least 30 days prior to taking action on a mining application. A written notice would also be sent to property owners or occupants within one mile of the proposed mine.

Another would require property sellers to inform potential buyers about proposed frac sand mines on the property or neighboring property.

One would authorize counties to issue licenses for frac sand exploration and require the Department of Natural Resources to provide technical assistance related to frac sand exploration to a county upon request. Currently, it’s pretty much the Wild West when it comes to frac sand exploration.

In the absence of protective measures such as a well-planned local ordinance, Vinehout proposes requiring frac sand mining to be listed as a conditional use in areas zoned for agriculture. That would give local officials an opportunity to negotiate conditions on the operation of a mine and provide a measure of local control, including a public hearing on issues related to mine siting. The bill also makes frac sand mining a prohibited use in areas zoned residential.

Currently, the state doesn’t even keep an official tally of frac sand mines in Wisconsin. Thanks to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, we know there are about 100 permitted mines currently operating. Another 66 are in development. Frac sand mining isn’t going away. It’s likely to be here for decades. Tiffany should do the right thing and schedule a hearing. At least we’d know how state lawmakers feel about the rights of average citizens.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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