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.

First, pro-industry elected officials dominate key committees that have the power to determine permit outcomes. Members of the county Environment and Land Use Committee (ELU), which considers applications for new sand mines, have been overwhelmingly supportive of frac sand development. ELU chair Tom Bice routinely defends the mining industry during public meetings, maintaining that government should not impede industrial progress or prevent people from making money from their land. During the August 19th county board meeting to discuss the moratorium, for example, he dismissed concerns about health impacts and, recognizing that a moratorium enjoyed broad support, unsuccessfully lobbied to push the moratorium's start date to November 1, arguing that people who invested time and money in developing mine proposals should be afforded ample opportunity to submit their applications to the county. Similarly, the vice chair of the ELU committee, Jay Low, has expressed the same attitude, saying in reference to mining that "people should be able to sell their capital. This is America" (Rodriquez 2013).

Second, some former and current local officials at the town and county levels have financial interests in frac sand mining. One former member of the influential ELU committee, David Quarne, was given approval to develop a frac sand rail loading facility near Blair. During the process, Quarne abstained from voting on frac sand permits but remained in the meetings (Kennedy 2012). Beyond the ELU committee, it was recently discovered that County Supervisor David Suchla is a partner in Sand Tran, a local frac sand company. County Supervisor Sally Miller has filed a formal ethics violations complaint against Suchla, accusing him of seeking to benefit economically from his elected position and of pressuring other county officials (Kennedy 2013a). Like Quarne did when he was on the ELU committee, Suchla has taken to recusing himself from votes dealing with frac sand mining, such as the recent moratorium decision. By stepping away from these crucial votes, they avoid the narrow legal definition of a conflict of interest. But from an ethical perspective, this raises serious questions, especially given that they have financial interests in promoting the growth of a controversial industry with still poorly understood impacts. In addition to county officials, town officials have also been linked to the burgeoning industry. Early on, Robert Tenneson, town chairman of Preston Township, supported Trempealeau County's first frac sand mine, which was sited in his township (Kennedy 2012). Then in early 2013, the ELU Committee approved a frac sand mine for Tenneson himself. Similarly, in Arcadia, town supervisor Ivan Pronschinske had opposed one proposed frac sand mine, but then partnered with the same company, Kaw Valley, on a sand mining proposal on his own land (Kennedy 2013c).

Third, industry has sought to hire county zoning officials, giving them access to crucial local expertise and personal connections in the region. County frac sand specialist Kimarie Estenson was hired by Ottawa Sand Co., now Arcadia Sand, in June 2011, shortly after it received a permit to operate a mine and processing plant (Kennedy 2012). Director of land management Kevin Lien has turned down multiple offers to work for frac sand companies. In part, he is concerned that the sand industry is seeking to gut regulators and undermine the capacity of local regulation by hiring away experienced public employees and zoning specialists. Star Tribune investigative journalist Tony Kennedy writes that "Lien said he personally has turned away four companies with job overtures. He considered one but dropped out when the company balked at his demand for a multi-year guarantee. That made him wonder if the suitor had an ulterior motive to 'pull me out of my county position'" (Kennedy 2012).

Other Examples in the Region

It is often difficult to find the "smoking gun" that directly connects an elected official or public employee to frac sand mining in a way that might be deemed "corrupt." Officials are generally not stupid. They avoid abusing their position in obvious ways, such as by taking votes that would directly benefit their personal business interests. However, from the perspective of industry, valuable political influence is gained through subtle, roundabout means. And this influence is not limited to Trempealeau County. In many parts of the region, the interweaving of political officials with the interests of frac sand mining advances the industry in a way that is indirect but increasingly systematic. Here are some other examples that have been in the news:
  • In Buffalo County, WI, the chairman of Montana Township, Dennis Bork, joined with six other farmers in a bid to develop a $15 million frac sand operation with Glacier Sands. The proposal was denied by the county Board of Adjustment, which determined that the township's land-use plan was incompatible with industrial sand mining. Bork then had the township considering changes to its land-use plan while he and others sued the Board of Adjustment (Kennedy 2012).
  • Paul Van Eijl, former zoning administrator in Buffalo County, WI, was hired by Superior Sand Systems in early 2012 after Superior received the first conditional-use permit for a frac sand mine ever issued by the Buffalo County Board of Adjustment (Kennedy 2012).
  • Buffalo County also lost its part-time zoning technician, now said to be "moonlighting as a consultant to frac sand companies" (Kennedy 2012).
  • While serving as an elected state representative, lawyer Mark Radcliffe (D-Black River falls) also represented, through his private practice, the mining company High Country Sand in a January 2012 lawsuit against Eau Claire County, challenging the county's moratorium on sand mining (Lueders 2012). 
  • Gordon Steinhauer, an Eau Claire County supervisor who chaired the county's Planning and Development Commission, is the retired head of Steinhauer Enterprises, an excavating company now run by his son Joel. In 2012 the company was hauling silica sand from a mine in Chippewa County (Lueders 2012).
  • Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan was hired in February 2013 to run a new lobbying and trade group for the frac sand industry in Minnesota (Kennedy 2013b). While he initially refused to resign as mayor, he eventually stepped down after considerable outcry. 
  • When Canadian Sand and Proppant (later EOG) was seeking permits in 2008 for a controversial sand processing plant in the City of Chippewa Falls, WI and a mine in the nearby town of Howard, mayor Dan Hedrington resigned to take a job with SEH, an engineering firm routinely hired by the city and then under contract with Canadian Sand and Proppant (Chippewa Herald 2008). 

As the frac sand industry matures it will be important to better understand how mining interests influence local decision-making processes and with what consequences. In Wisconsin, campaign contributions from mining and gas industries to state politicians surged 21-fold from 2007 to 2012, underscoring efforts by industry to gain political influence (WDC 2013). At the county and township level, many mining companies try to cultivate support through donations to local schools and other community organizations. When their interests are in jeopardy, many seek to bully elected officials with veiled or overt threats of lawsuits. In addition to these common tactics, we also need to document and examine how the industry secures influence through the often indirect means described above.

These various efforts create a climate in which industrial sand mining is viewed as inevitable. Local officials act as if they have no choice but to accommodate the interests of frac sand. Doing so, however, comes at a cost. The environmental health and socio-economic impacts of frac-sand mining remain uncertain, and the costs and benefits of mining are distributed in an uneven and often unfair manner. Elected officials and public employees are expected to act in the public interest, but when their private interests appear to overlap with a controversial industry, people lose trust in government institutions and officials. When public employees are lured into the private sector to work for frac sand companies, or when they consult with them on the side, the capacity of public institutions to regulate or act on behalf of the common good is eroded and undermined.

Ultimately, the situation in Trempealeau County also illustrates the important role to be played by an involved, educated, and alert community. In other counties, when citizens organize, when they attend public hearings, raise questions, and insist on having a role in the decision-making process, they serve as a crucial counterweight to sand mining interests. In Trempealeau, the mining industry gained an early and powerful foothold and grassroots organizing has faced an uphill battle ever since. But over the last several months, citizens in that county have organized and have achieved some small but important gains, and their efforts clearly helped embolden county officials to support a one-year moratorium, a temporary but relatively momentous achievement in a county where frac sand interests had until then experienced little push-back. 

References Cited:

Chippewa Herald. 2008. Chippewa Falls Mayor Dan Hedrington resigns. The Chippewa Herald, July 20.

Kennedy, Tony. 2013a. In Wisconsin, county commissioner is accused of self-dealing over frac sand. Star Tribune, August 17.

Kenned, Tony. 2013b. Red Wing's mayor gets second job with frac sand lobbying group. Star Tribune, February 6.

Kennedy, Tony. 2013c. Split Wisconsin county OKs 2 more sand mines. Star Tribune, January 10.

Kennedy, Tony. 2012. Local officials dealing themselves a piece of frac sand boom. Star Tribune, December 26.

Lueders, Bill. 2012. What is the extent of Wisconsin lawmakers' conflict of interest in fracking sand ming rules?. Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, January 18. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Tom, important and insightful distinctions to be made between offical and "extra-offical" capacities. Couple other ways:
    1. Local governments intentionally construct and then broadly apply ambiguities to zoning ordinances, policies,procedures and regulatory standards, i.e. refusing to make a destinction between the scale/scope of industrial sand mining, despite naming it as such, and historical-sized/use non-metallic mining or aggregate quarrying.
    2. Use these same ambiguities to establish precedents for official actions, both at the county and Town/Municipal levels, and create a self-fullfilling record of a "non-obstructionary" stance toward this business/industry.
    3. Regard citizen input and constituent-concerns as opposition for opposition-sake to official efforts to devlop needed ordinances, oversight, and regulation.
    4. Use position/office to threaten to repeal county zoning out of feelings of under-appreciation, for merely doing elected duty.
    5. Maintain a minimun level of competence and experience to official land-use planning and zoning positions, hirees and appointees.
    6. Fail to utilize independent expertise, analysis, research and report to provide balanced review discussion, debate and decision of the issues and, instead, take the industry's impartial opinion as adequate considertion and representation of information, intentions, and actions.
    Joe Mlinar/Montana Township/Buffalo County Defender