Friday, July 18, 2014

Flying Kites and Photographing Mines with Public Lab

Last month we flew a kite and took aerial photographs of the Hi-Crush frac sand operation in Augusta, WI, using techniques developed by Public Lab. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) is a community -- supported by a 501(c)3 non-profit -- which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. The tools allow ordinary citizens to engage in monitoring and research. Using kites or balloons, Public Lab has developed a easy-to-use system for taking aerial photographs, which has been utilized by communities in Peru to produce maps to support land tenure claims and by environmentalists and citizens in Louisiana to monitor the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In brief, the technology entails rigging up a small digital camera to a kite or weather balloon and then flying it over the site that you wish to photograph. Online, open-source software is available from Public Lab to stitch the photographs into an aerial map. A student and I decided to explore how this technology might be applied by citizens concerned about the rapid growth of frac sand mining. We collaborated with the Concerned Citizens of Bridge Creek and the Citizens for Environmental Stewardship, both based out of the Augusta area, and we were joined by two members of Public Lab who were touring the region to learn more about frac sand mining.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Resources for Understanding SB 632 / AB 816

State lawmakers are once again discussing a proposed bill that would undermine local regulation of frac sand mining. On February 26, Senator Tiffany and Representative Ballweg introduced Senate Bill 632 and Assembly Bill 816, which would restrict local governments from applying new regulations to existing frac sand operations. Legislators have moved quickly, holding a joint committee meeting days later to gather testimony on the bill. Concerned citizens and others had less than a week to study the bill and raise questions, but dozens still appeared in Madison for a contentious committee hearing on Monday, March 3 (see reports on the hearing by Isthmus and Wisconsin Watch). The committee held a vote on Wednesday, March 5, approving the bill and passing it on to the full senate.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Defense of local democracy: An evolving regional grassroots response to frac sand mining

Over the past few years, dozens of local groups have formed in response to frac sand mining. Many of these groups are simply neighbors who began meeting in someone's kitchen, garage, or basement to study the impacts of frac sand mining and to find ways to express their concerns. In countless communities dealing with complex questions raised by mining, we've seen that concerned citizens help to strengthen and defend local democratic decision-making processes. 

When organized, citizens have helped to stop proposed operations that are viewed as incompatible with community well-being, such as mining operations near schools, residences, or sensitive nature reserves. Citizens have also played an important role in monitoring frac sand operations, pressuring local officials to create new ordinances or enforce existing regulations, and calling out local conflicts of interest. As with any grassroots effort, however, the longevity, size, organizational capacity, values, and influence of the groups vary widely and evolve over time. Some groups rise and fall quickly, especially as controversial proposals or operations fade from the public eye, while others might achieve an enduring presence in their community.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Price of Sand, Film Screening & Discussion, Oct. 17, UW-Stout

Jim Tittle will be visiting UW-Stout in a couple weeks to show his film The Price of Sand, followed by an open discussion.

The Price of Sand is a documentary about the frac sand mining boom in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Due to a rapid increase in demand, pure silica sand has become a valuable commodity, and mines are opening here at a rapid rate. The film examines the local impacts of sand mining and the challenges faced by small towns in the region.

The event is free and open to the public, and refreshments will be served prior to the screening! Come watch the film and discuss its significance with the filmmaker himself.

The event is organized by the Social Science Speaker Series, which is part of the Social Science Department at UW-Stout, and is co-sponsored by several university groups. An event page has been set up at the Facebook site of UW-Stout's Applied Social Science Program.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How frac sand gains local political support: Notes from Trempealeau County

Since the early days of the frac sand boom, many observers have been troubled by the close connections that the industry sometimes cultivates with local town and county officials. These connections underscore how the mining industry relies on both economic and political influence to achieve its goals. In some cases, the relationship between a public official and a private industry would appear to represent a conflict of interest, such as when a town supervisor or a supervisor's family members get into the frac sand business by leasing their land. In other cases, the connections are subtle and indirect, but still effective, such as when deeply rooted allegiances between old friends or distant family member are activated in support of a specific proposal. Whether overt or subtle, the entanglement of political and economic interests creates a decision-making climate that facilitates growth of the frac-sand industry. How does the mining industry secure the support of local elected officials and public employees? How do they cultivate a decision-making climate in which local officials sometimes feel they have no choice but to accommodate the interests of a controversial industry?

Questions in Trempealeau County, WI

Trempealeau County recently passed a one year moratorium on the permitting of new sand mining operations in order to study the industry's health impacts. Over the past few years, the county has permitted at least 26 frac sand operations, including mines, processing plants, and rail transload facilities, representing the largest concentration of permitted frac sand operations in Wisconsin.

Several factors account for the rapid growth of the industry in Trempealeau County, including regional geology and access to coveted transportation infrastructure such as rail lines. But another key factor appears to be a local political environment that accommodates and advances the interests of frac sand mining. Frac sand interests have been able to influence local politics through at least three channels: outspoken industry advocates on key committees, elected officials who enjoy financial ties to mining, and hiring local experts away from government positions.