frac sand mine  (copy)

This photo shows the Preferred Sands mine, which spans 400 acres near Blair, Wis. Pattison Sand proposes a mining operation in Crawford County, near the Wisconsin River.

Lukas Keapproth - Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

With Gov. Scott Walker’s new budget including assistance for the sand mining industry, a controversial frac sand operation near the Lower Wisconsin River is moving closer to approval.

The town of Bridgeport Planning Commission has OK’d a conditional use permit for Pattison Sand Co. of Clayton, Iowa, to locate a mine near the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, setting up a final vote by the Town Board on March 27.

Mine opponents packed the Bridgeport Town Hall for the commission meeting last week but were given little opportunity to speak during the three-hour hearing, according to reports. Here's a video of the meeting posted by the Crawford Stewardship Project; for citizen comments after the commission's vote, go to the 2:56 mark.

“It’s supposed to be ‘For the People and By the People’ but that didn’t happen,” Arnie Steele of Bridgeport Concerned Citizens told the Courier Press in Prairie du Chien.

The group says it will consider legal action but Bridgeport attorney Todd Infield had advised the commission that it couldn’t deny a permit simply based on citizen opposition. Timing may be an issue as well for the town of Bridgeport, with elections scheduled for April 2. The town chairman and two supervisors are facing challenges from mining opponents.

Pattison’s application will still come under review from the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, which to date has declined to sign off on the project. The board meets again on April 11 in Sauk City and is still trying to decide how the mine would impact the corridor, according to Mark Cupp, executive director of the Riverway.

“The board is now working with the UW-Madison cartography department on computer modeling for viewshed analysis,” he says.

The project site is about 300 acres, with 178 acres being the mine itself. It could operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week but Pattison says it doesn’t anticipate running at full strength all the time.

Existing rules allow nonmetallic mining within the 92-mile riverway corridor as long as the operation is not visible from the river itself, although there is some ambiguity regarding those rules as it pertains to an industrial mine.

When at full operation, the proposed sand mine could send up to 120 trucks a day west on Highway 60 from the mine site headed to Pattison’s processing facility on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. The processed sand would be shipped out of state via rail cars for use in hydraulic fracturing that helps free underground deposits of natural gas.

The Riverway Board has urged Pattison to withdraw its application, saying that while the project might meet the letter of the law, the mine would detract from the scenic area and potentially conflict with the federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965.

But Pattison, which could not be reached for comment for this story, has said it will not drop its application.

Last month, the company was cited by the state Department of Natural Resources for violating its air pollution permit at a facility in Prairie du Chien where processed sand is transferred from trucks to rail cars. Pattison says it is taking steps to address those problems and has not been fined.

On Saturday, Canadian National Railroad reported 19 train cars carrying frac sand went off their tracks near Hatfield in central Wisconsin's Jackson County. The train, which was traveling between Taylor and Wisconsin Rapids, spilled sand across the area but there were no injuries.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association is praising the addition of two Department of Natural Resources positions in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget to address the state's growing frac sand industry.

Rich Budinger, president of the group, says the additional staff will help to increase compliance with Wisconsin’s sand mining regulations.

“As sand mining continues to be an important part of the Badger State economy, it’s important that it be done in strict compliance with DNR regulations, with a demonstrated commitment to strong communities and a healthy and sustainable environment,” he says, noting that the number of sand mining operations in the state has nearly doubled over the past 18 months.

“By supporting responsible sand mining in Wisconsin, Governor Walker is supporting an industry that creates jobs, generates tax revenue and provides other significant economic benefits to the state,” says Budinger.

Walker’s budget also includes $6.4 billion worth of investments in the state's roads, bridges and freight routes. Part of that investment is aimed at improving freight rail in Monroe County, an area of heavy frac sand mining.

Improving freight rail service is key to making sand mining profitable. While the sand itself is easy to mine, moving it by truck is both expensive and hard on local roads.

Using rail cars “makes it a lot more environmentally sound, if there's more ports off of that because you can connect it right there and not put as much burden on county and town roads and things of that nature," Walker told the Tomah Journal recently.

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