April 23, 2014

Senate committee takes up sand mining bill

Proposed legislation that could limit the ability of local governments to place restrictions on nearby non-metallic mining operations drew hours of testimony at the Capitol Thursday, as dozens of people filled a hearing room and overflow areas to speak on the bill.

The measure is primarily aimed at easing restrictions on industrial sand mining operations, which have seen an explosion of growth in recent years because of demand for the sand in an oil drilling process known as “hydraulic fracturing.” Since 2010, the state has jumped from about ten “frac” sand mines to over 100.

As local governments have seen requests to open mines increase, primarily in western and central Wisconsin, state Senator Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) says many have tried to use police powers to set restrictions on the operations. Those include requiring air quality monitoring and limiting noise levels generated by the mines, as well as requiring advance payments for possible damage to area roads by trucks hauling the heavy sand. Tiffany, the sponsor of the bill, told lawmakers Thursday “we’re at the leading edge, or the leading wave, of what could be some very disruptive policies to commerce and to the protection of private property.”

Critics contend local governments are in the best position to make those decisions though, since they are typically acting to protect the interests of those living around mining sites. State Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) argues the legislation would strip local officials of their ability to put reasonable regulations on operations that impact their residents and would have “big government dictating all of the terms to these local officials who have been, in most cases, trying to use it (local control) in a responsible way.”

Supporters of the bill say local officials could still use their zoning authority to set regulations. Critics pointed out though that many towns in the state don’t have those powers, so they would have to rely on state regulators to monitor and enforce any violations.

The bill is currently awaiting action from a Senate committee, which is chaired by Tiffany. However, it remains unclear whether it has enough support right now to pass in the full Senate in its current form. Leadership in the Assembly has also indicated passing the measure is not a priority at this time.