“Our major concern is, if they just walk away whose shoulders does reclamation fall on? The town, the landowner, or the county?”
Reclamation is the process of preparing land for another use after mining activities cease. Prior to granting a permit to operate a mine, the county must approve a “reclamation plan” including land’s post-mining use. Many communities are concerned that typical reclamation plans will leave lands significantly degraded compared to their pre-mining state and unprepared for beneficial uses consistent with local land use plans.
Many mines were forested hillsides before mining, and will be flatter land after reclamation. Sustaining plant vitality after reclamation can be difficult, especially if the reclamation plan includes such soil intensive uses as agriculture. During stockpiling of the overburden layers (soil on top of the mined bedrock) soils rapidly degrade, and may take decades to centuries to re-develop1. In the meantime, mines in the process of reclamation can have significant erosion problems, be hosts to invasive species, and promote groundwater seepage at the base of reclaimed piles. This seepage could introduce surface and groundwater quality concerns such as mobilized heavy metals in oxidized and acidified soils.
In addition to environmental concerns around sand mine reclamation, communities also face economic concerns. To discuss some economic concerns, Mathew Lippincott spoke with Cheryl Miller, president of Save The Hills Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the natural environment in western Wisconsin. Mathew and Cheryl’s conversation is transcribed here:
Between ¹⁄3 and ½ of all frac sand operations are paused but you’re still concerned2. What issues are still active?
Even though they aren’t actively working the mines there are still huge piles of sand and holding ponds. We don’t know if those are being maintained, but the companies seem to only respond to complaints. Our major concern is, if they just walk away whose shoulders does reclamation fall on? The town, the landowner, or the county? We don’t know, and there are legal loopholes that could leave us footing the bill as taxpayers or fighting expensive lawsuits as a town.
How did you get involved, and long have you been concerned about the mines?
I’ve been involved in opposing frac sand mine expansion since 2005, when the Hoffman Hills mine was proposed to go in across from the site of our future home. We were not yet living there as we hadn’t built the house we were planning, but we received no notification from the town or county that a large mine was proposed. We formed a coalition and successfully opposed the mine. Different members of the coalition were concerned with the neighborhood, the mines’ position next to Hoffman Hills state park, and the mine’s proximity to Muddy Creek. A group called Save Our Hills came out of the effort, and a few years later we joined with other groups to form Save The Hills Alliance. After all that I thought, if I can get on the local board to be town clerk, maybe this wouldn’t happen to other people.
Frac sand operators came in with promises of increased revenue for towns and counties, how has that worked out?
The boom/bust cycle has brought temporary income that may never cover the cost of having mines. Here in Tainter Township, Fairmount Minerals is over a billion dollars in debt and has laid off 55 employees locally. We have no idea what will happen. We only collect approximately $10,500 in taxes from them each year and aren’t relying on the mine’s income, but many towns have planned around the income from mines. Chippewa Falls has a Tax Increment Financial District supporting downtown improvements based on their real and personal property taxes from EOG. Blair township has payments reserved for their school district, and a lot of counties and townships have a ‘wheel tax’ or production tax of 10-15 cents a ton. When the mines close they won’t get that, and if they planned around these taxes they could be in trouble. You mentioned that you’re concerned about a legal loophole that may let mines escape accountability, can you say more? We are still determining if a legal loophole in NR 135.40 will allow banks to cancel the reclamation bonds when they see an impending bankruptcy.3 While the intent of the law is to allow a company to change bonds, the wording may allow a bank to cancel the bond with 90 days notice, and if the mine doesn’t shut down operations, county officials wouldn’t be able to prove the company had failed to reclaim. There’s no case law on the statute and we could face an expensive lawsuit.
How do you plan to keep attention on the mine? What needs to be done?
Monitoring these mines is important to keep the pressure on. In Augusta complaints have kept the mining companies watering their piles so dust doesn’t blow off site. We need to get pictures not just to keep the mines honest, but also to bring attention to the fact that even though they aren’t operating, we’re still being affected.
(1) See a summary here:
(2) December 2015: DNR says 84 open, 40 closed facilities. http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Mines/ISMMap.html
June 2015: Midwest Energy News lists 58 inactive and 63 active mines. http://midwestenergynews.com/2015/06/03/wisconsin-towns-worry-frac-sand-boom-will-dry-up/