Wisconsin’s pollution control agency released a draft Tuesday of a comprehensive study of sand mining to swift criticism from environmentalists who say it relies too heavily on industry-funded air quality data.
The Department of Natural Resources’ strategic analysis is intended to assess “the latest scientific, natural resource, and socioeconomic information” of the 128 mines, processing and loading facilities across western Wisconsin. The DNR is accepting public comments on the draft.
For years, companies have mined the fine-grained silica sand prevalent in western Wisconsin for industrial use. But advances in a gas and oil mining technique known as hydraulic fracturing created enormous demand for the sand, which is used to open cracks in underground rocks.
Many of those sites have been shuttered in the past year as world oil prices plunged, but environmentalists warn the industry is not going away.
Midwest Environmental Advocates immediately critiqued the 155-page document’s assessment of air quality in nearby communities.
According to the DNR analysis, the primary concern is airborne particles smaller than 10 microns — known as PM10 — rather than the smaller, more dangerous fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can lodge deep inside human lungs. The DNR says air quality monitors in western Wisconsin have not detected elevated levels of fine particulates.
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But MEA attorney Sarah Geers argues there is no evidence to support that conclusion.
“Like DNR’s 2012 analysis, the strategic analysis provides a lot of background about the industrial sand process and the regulatory framework. This should not distract the reader from the limited data and analysis of the actual air quality impacts of industrial sand facilities,” Geers wrote. “The most serious limitation is that DNR fails to adequately assess the threat from PM2.5 emissions because DNR is operating under the faulty premise that these facilities do not emit PM2.5.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has previously expressed concerns with the DNR’s approach to regulating fine particulate matter.
A DNR spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
MEA also bemoaned the DNR’s reliance on a previous study by the nonprofit Institution for Wisconsin’s Health.
Published earlier this year, the Health Impact Assessment concluded industrial sand operations pose little risk to air and water quality. MEA says the report’s authors overlooked the risks of fine particulate matter while failing to acknowledge the limitations of a study based on data gathered by the industry itself.
“All of these important organizations keep pointing back to this industry-funded study,” said MEA spokeswoman Stacey Harbaugh. “The big problem here is that the DNR is not collecting data.”
The IWH study has come under fire from others, including the Ho-Chunk Nation, which suggested the organization may not have the resources to properly evaluate the topic.
Jim Steinhoff, the environmental health and lab manager for the La Crosse County Health Department, was one of more than a dozen local health officials who reviewed the IWH study. He shares some of MEA’s concerns about the lack of data on PM2.5.
“They did the best they could do with what they had,” he said. “I don’t think you can say there’s no concern here looking at the data they had to work with.”
The IWH, an independent nonprofit, has defended the study, even publishing a 14-page response to prior MEA critiques.
“We’re standing by the findings of the study,” said IWH manager Dustin Young. “We realize it can’t be all things to everybody.”
Young said the institute encourages further study of the issue and welcomes advocacy from groups like MEA.
Geers said she was glad to see the DNR acknowledge the threat of water contamination and call for additional study.
“DNR has known for some time that some wastewater holding ponds at industrial sand mines have had high levels of metals, which present a risk to groundwater quality and the health of rural residents who rely on private wells for drinking water,” she said. “In the meantime, DNR should require monitoring at industrial sand facilities to ensure that these discharges are not going unnoticed.”