Regulators Shut Down Toxic Fracking Sand Mine They Say Was 'Running Wild'

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Regulators Shut Down Toxic Fracking Sand Mine They Say Was 'Running Wild'

The incident illustrates lack of local oversight at the beginning of shale gas extraction cycle

A frac sand mining operation in Wisconsin. (Photo: carol mitchell/flickr/cc)

Wisconsin regulators have shut down a frac sand mine for operating without a permit, dumping polluted wastewater into an unlined pond, and generally "running wild," as one county official put it.

The 1,600 acre-Guza Pit mine is located four miles south of Independence, Wisconsin and near a stream that flows into the Mississippi River. The site produces "frac sand," a fine, crush-resistant sand used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Frac sand, which must be uniform in shape and able to withstand enormous pressures at great depth underground, is currently mined most heavily in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Due to the recent boom in shale gas extraction, Wisconsin alone is on track to extract 50 million tons of frac sand a year—the equivalent of 9,000 semi-truck loads a day.

A report released in late September revealed that frac-sand mining and processing is damaging to the environment. It uses huge amounts of groundwater and contributes to pollution by releasing "very small and very dangerous dust particles," into the air.

The Guza Pit mine, run by Superior Silica Sands of Texas, is currently under the jurisdiction of Trempealeau County, which issued the stop-work order on Monday.

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But according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, county zoning official Kevin Lien—who described the mine as "just running wild, with no permit at all"—said the site will escape the county’s regulatory authority if the city of Independence follows through on its own plan to provide regulatory oversight.

"Lien said several frac-sand companies operating in Trempealeau County have sought annexation to small towns to avoid county regulation," the paper reported. "Independence, for example, agreed to annex the land in exchange for 15 cents for every ton of finished frac sand."

The Independence City Council is set to meet about the issue on Thursday.

As the Star-Tribune notes: "The episode illustrates the challenges local regulators have faced as large and small mining operations, often run by absentee owners, have cropped up in rural jurisdictions across Wisconsin and Minnesota due to the Upper Midwest’s frac-sand boom."

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