Local Control

General environmental permits overseen by the DNR deal with air quality, storm water, high-capacity wells, wetlands, and endangered species. Besides these permits, Wisconsin and Minnesota currently lack statewide regulations specific to industrial frac sand mining, setting the stage for intensely local battles. Local units of government have numerous tools at their disposal, such as zoning, licensing ordinances, or even temporary moratoriums, which allow them to influence the location and operating conditions of frac-sand developments. These tools are very important. Some estimates suggest that in Wisconsin a third of frac-sand operations have clustered in unzoned areas, “leaving local officials with little control over how or where mining occurs” (see Wisconsin frac sand sites double).

Through licensing ordinances, towns may conditionally approve or prohibit frac-sand operations on a case by case basis, regulating such operations in order to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of town residents. A nonmetallic mining ordinance adopted by the Town of Cooks Valley was challenged by frac sand interests, but was eventually upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in February of 2012. Cooks Valley, an unzoned township in Chippewa County, WI, adopted village powers in 2001 and adopted a nonmetallic mining ordinance in 2008 to regulate sand mining. The Supreme Court decision established licensing ordinances as an important non-zoning tool available to local governments.

Towns have also negotiated development or mining agreements directly with companies. These are contracts that specify conditions of operation or even payment of fees for maintenance, repair, and reconstruction of town roads. One of the first such agreements was negotiated by the Town of Howard, which is not zoned, with EOG Resources in July of 2011 (see the Mining Agreement).

In June of 2013, Pepin County adopted a overlay zoning ordinance that effectively bans frac-sand mining along a 10-mile stretch of the Great River Road and Lake Pepin. The Great River Road/National Scenic Byway Preservation Zoning Ordinance is the first ordinance that actually bans frac-sand operations from a defined territory.

Local control over frac sand mines came under scrutiny in October of 2013 with Senate Bill 349, sponsored by Senator Tiffany and Representative Ballweg. The legislation proposed to roll back the ability of local units of government to regulate air and water quality, the use of explosives, and highway use contracts related to mining. A hearing held on October 24 brought passionate testimony for and against the bill, which did not advance.

In the Spring of 2014, State lawmakers once again discussed a proposed bill that would have undermined local regulation of frac sand mining. On February 26, Senator Tiffany and Representative Ballweg introduced Senate Bill 632 and Assembly Bill 816, seeking to restrict local governments from applying new regulations to existing frac sand operations. Legislators 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, where it remained until the close of the legislative session.

For an excellent overview of state legislative attempts to remove local control over frac sand mining, see "The fight over frac sand mining in Wisconsin" by Tamara Dean. 

Resources on Local Regulations of Frac Sand Mining

Campaign Contributions
SB 349
SB 632 / AB 816

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