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Sand facility

A petition asks the EPA to force Wisconsin officials to place tighter air pollution controls on the Superior Silica Sands facility in Barron County. Above, the company has built a frac sand drying facility in Barron County. 

Wisconsin conservation groups are again asking federal regulators to force the state Department of Natural Resources to get tougher on polluters.

A petition filed this week asks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reject changes the state is poised to make to an air emissions permit for a frac sand mining company.

The permit would allow emissions of very small particles that are a serious health hazard when inhaled, said Sarah Geers, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, a public interest law firm in Madison.

Under a new policy, the state Department of Natural Resources has proposed about a half-dozen air pollution permits that fail to properly control the particles despite previous objections by conservation groups and a 2015 letter from the EPA making it clear that DNR guidelines would wrongly exempt polluters from legal limitations, Geers said.

“The DNR is ignoring the presence and cumulative impacts of fine particulate matter from facilities including frac sand mines under its new policy,” Geers said in a statement. “Despite repeated objections by the EPA and groups like MEA, the DNR is ignoring its responsibilities to protect our air under federal law.”

DNR spokesman Andrew Savagian said the department’s air permitting staff wasn’t aware of the petition, which calls on the EPA to object to a revised permit to allow expansion of production at Superior Silica Sands in Barron County.

The Superior Silica permit proposed by the DNR would allow the company to expand production without estimating, monitoring or controlling the small particles, Geers said.

If the EPA objects, the DNR would be required to rewrite the permit with different limits on particles.

The water program probe could result in Wisconsin losing its authority to administer water pollution laws. However, in most cases states make changes to avoid losing control of those programs.

In 2002, conservation groups petitioned the EPA about persistent flaws in Wisconsin’s air pollution program that could have led to withdrawal of authority to administer the Clean Air Act, but the Legislature acted in 2005 to restore staffing that fixed the problems.

The petition on small-particle emissions is focused on a permitting practice the EPA warned the DNR about last year.

In an Aug. 25, 2015, letter to Kristin Hart, a manager in the DNR air quality management bureau, the EPA was blunt in its assessment of policy guidelines the department was writing for particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers — referred to by the abbreviation PM2.5.

The guidelines were flawed because they falsely asserted that machine processes such as crush and grinding don’t produce the particles, EPA Chicago Region Air Permitting Chief Genevieve Damico said in the letter.

“Overall, EPA does not believe that a broad statement that mechanical processes do not emit PM2.5 is accurate or appropriate,” Damico said. “EPA believes that such an assumption may cause WDNR to issue permits that are inconsistent with its State Implementation Plan. ... EPA urges WDNR to revise this guidance.”

The Ho-Chunk Nation and the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club joined Midwest Environmental Advocates in filing the petition.

Ho-Chunk Nation vice president Darren Brinegar said in a statement that the petition was needed to keep the public, the environment and natural habitats safe.

“The Ho-Chunk Nation is in favor of complying with the EPA standards,” Brinegar said.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.