Friday, November 7, 2014

What's $80,000 to a frac sand mine?

For some people, it's a house. For others, it's a car... or two. Or maybe student loan debt. For some frac sand mines, it's a few hours, if that.

Last month Alpine Sand, operating near Arcadia, in Trempealeau County, was fined $80,000 for violating storm water regulations. Their facility was originally cited by the DNR in October 2012 for mismanaging storm water. Then sand and sediment washed into a tributary of Newcomb Valley Creek on multiple occasions in 2013.

What does $80,000 mean to a frac sand mine?

According to the Wall Street Journal, in April the going rate for frac sand was $56 per ton (not including transportation or handling costs). We know that Alpine Sand is permitted to haul 180 loads a day from this particular mine. If we assume that one truckload typically carries about 20 tons (a figure I have heard for other operations), then we might estimate that Alpine Sand moves about 3,600 tons per day.

That means they move about $201,600 worth of sand, daily. If they operate every day, that's $1,411,200 per week. Eighty grand doesn't seem to represent a very big dent in their revenue stream.

What does such a modest fine mean for frac sand mining in general? Well, the Wall Street Journal recently boasted about a Texas-based investment firm striking it rich with Wisconsin frac sand, scoring gains of $1.4 billion on a $91 million investment. Read that again. $1.4 billion. Billion.

I wonder if an $80,000 fine will really encourage these out-of-state billionaires to take environmental standards seriously?

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.