The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will not fine a company that released millions of gallons of contaminated water from a Trempealeau County frac sand mine last spring.
Workers at the Hi-Crush mine in Whitehall drained a 3-acre holding pond on May 21 after a bulldozer slid into the water, trapping the operator in the air-tight cab for more than two hours.
About 10 million gallons of water and mud spilled onto neighboring farmland and into a tributary of the Trempealeau River, causing elevated levels of heavy metals.
DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the agency “has chosen not to pursue enforcement at this time due to the life saving measures taken that caused the event.”
New mines in Texas started operating this summer, offering cheaper sand to drillers in the Permian basin, which accounts for much of the nation’s oil production. At the same time, pipeline constrictions and depleted sand budgets have led to a slow-down in drilling.
Dick said the decision not to issue a citation was made this summer based on a provision in the rules that allows the discharge of untreated water to prevent the loss of life.
“We appreciate the open communication with DNR working together to achieve the right outcomes for our community, employees and contractors,” Hi-Crush spokesman Steve Bell said in an emailed statement. “We also appreciate DNR’s conclusion regarding the decisions made by our employees, with significant input from first responders, who collectively acted to save the life of our contractor, Robbie Gunderson.”
Trempealeau County Board chairman Tim Zeglin said there are lingering concerns about water quality in the creek, but he was not surprised by the lack of enforcement after meeting with DNR staff.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that this would be the eventual result,” Zeglin said. “I realized their role was to shield the mining company and paint over the near- and long-term consequences.”
Mary Jo Bork, whose land was in the path of the spill, is frustrated by the pace of the cleanup and the lack of DNR enforcement action.
“They promised us that Monday night after the spill everything was going to be back to normal. It’s taken 20 weeks … whatever window I look out, guess what I get to look at?” she said, lamenting the loss of a 4-acre prairie she planted in 2002. “Right now I should be looking at lots of purples … I see wet dirt.”
Zeglin said the incident could have been prevented and faults Hi-Crush for not alerting anyone downstream before releasing the water.
“They’re not supposed to do it but they do it — what the bulldozer operator was doing,” he said. “That guy never should have been up there.”
The federal Mine Health and Safety Administration cited Gerke Excavating, the contractor that employed the bulldozer driver, for negligence and fined the company $1,211.
Water samples taken the day of the spill showed high levels of arsenic, lead and other toxic metals, but copper is the only contaminant found at elevated levels in subsequent tests, said Roberta Walls, industrial sand sector specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The Trempealeau River was colored orange in the days after the spill as sediment from the mine made its way to the Mississippi River.
As required, Hi-Crush reported the spill to the DNR and developed a plan for monitoring contamination levels on nearby land and water.
The DNR continues to oversee Hi-Crush’s monitoring of water quality in the area.