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sand mine file photo

Workers clear land last December near Tunnel City in Monroe County for a sand mine operated by Unimin, which was one of four charter companies in the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, announced Tuesday.

Wisconsin's chaotically fast-growing sand mining industry took a step toward stricter self-regulation Tuesday with the public rollout of a new statewide member organization formed by a handful of the industry's top players.

The Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, or WISA, aims to hold members to high standards of environmental protection, management and safety, said association president Rich Budinger, who works for Wisconsin Industrial Sand Co., which owns three large sand mines in central Wisconsin.

"All these topics have regulations throughout the state," he said. "We want to be able to set the bar higher, with association standards that exceed requirements."

Budinger said WISA leaders would use annual reviews to ensure member companies are following the group's "strict code of conduct."

The group, announced Tuesday, was formed by Badger Mining Corp., U.S. Silica, Unimin Corp. and Fairmount Minerals, the parent company of Wisconsin Industrial Sand Co. All but U.S. Silica have had sand mining operations in Wisconsin for decades.

Tom Woletz, who works on sand mining regulation for the state Department of Natural Resources, called the group's four members "top-tier companies."

"They know how to mine, they're environmentally responsible and they have good management practices," Woletz said, adding the DNR "absolutely welcomed" the group's desire to help guide an industry that creates jobs but also generates controversy over dust, traffic, noise and other concerns.

Downsized DNR compliance units have been challenged keeping up with the industry growth, especially in dust oversight.

"Everyone is excited about this group, to finally be able to get a group of people you can interact with," Woletz said. "They want to make sure this can be done responsibly."

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Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, declined to comment on WISA's creation.

In May, Wisconsin had about 73 existing and proposed sand mining operations, plus 32 processing plants, Woletz said.

The sand-mining industry is growing rapidly due to a surge in a form of natural gas mining known as fracking, which uses a mixture of fine sand, water and chemicals to break the gas loose from rock. The best sand for fracking is made of round, quartzite crystals, and Wisconsin has large and accessible deposits of that type of sand.

"There's literally dozens of mines that have been opened up and are operating in the last two years in Wisconsin," Budinger said.

Woletz said WISA eventually could serve the same communications and organization role that trade groups for other industries do.

"We can send people to their groups and talk to 200 or 300 people at a time about the concerns that are going on, what the problems are and how we can mitigate them," he said.

Budinger said WISA would have a lobbying role, having recently hired law firms in Madison and Milwaukee to handle such activities. But he said the group was more focused on adding members and promoting "fact-based, scientific dialogue" about mining with state lawmakers, local governments and the public.

Lobbying records at the state's Government Accountability Board had no listing for WISA, which incorporated in March.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending, said WISA could be "gearing up" for the next legislative session in 2013.

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