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Citizens challenge DNR’s air permit for Preferred Sands, LLC

— Trempealeau County, WI is ground zero for frac sand mining in the state. Citizens who are impacted by blowing silica dust are challenging the air pollution control permit issued to Preferred Sands.

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In this challenge to the Preferred Sands, LLC air pollution permit, local residents asked the court for a contested case hearing on problems associated with the DNR’s approval for the facility’s pollution control plan, including public health concerns with ambient air regulation, the need for monitoring and an environmental assessment done by our state’s natural resources protection agency.

While this challenge and related appeals were underway, other petitioners lost some of the legal issues in a similar challenge to a permit for FTS International Proppants (now known as Fairmount Santrol). Those issues included a challenge to the permit’s lack of: a requirement for stack tests, reporting requirements for fugitive dust controls, and an environmental assessment of the facility and its role in cumulative air quality impacts.

Because those aspects of the FTS International air pollution permit challenge were unsuccessful, citizens chose to withdraw their petition in the Preferred Sands, LLC case.

The decision further illustrates why citizens petitioned the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for a strategic analysis of the impacts of the frac sand industry on public health and the environment. Decision makers and Wisconsin citizens need a detailed study of the environmental and public health impacts of frac sand mining and alternative ways to manage this natural resource extraction industry.

Case Summary

Since Preferred Sands, LLC bought a frac sand mine and processing facility near the Town of Blair in 2011, the company has had serious problems with complying with state and federal regulations of both air and water pollution control laws. The facility near the city of Blair mines silica sand and blasts and breaks up rock which is piled, washed, dried and hauled by truck and train for use in the hydraulic fracturing industry. Blair controversially annexed the mine site from Preston Township in Trempealeau County after the Pennsylvania-based company bought the mine from Winn Bay Sands LP of Saskatchewan in 2012.

The worst example of damage caused by the Preferred Sands company was in May of 2012 when a pile of sand liquefied after a heavy rain and ran off site, destroying a nearby home and spilling into a wetland and creek. This news wasn’t one isolated accident - Preferred Sands was not complying with its original air pollution control permits when it applied to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for new permits to expand their operations in late 2012.

Citizens concerned with the company’s practices decided to take action and challenge Preferred Sands’ new air permit, which was issued by the DNR in early 2013. These petitioners observed large, fugitive dust clouds at Preferred Sands’ Blair facility and share our concern that the DNR isn’t doing enough to regulate the air quality around frac sand mines.

We reviewed the company’s permit with the help of an environmental engineer and found several problems that raised red flags for public health and the environment. The air pollution control limits in the Preferred Sands, LLC permit didn’t meet the standards in the law and there was insufficient monitoring to protect the public from breathing unsafe levels of particulate matter. Read our comments to the DNR below in the resources section.

Legal standards governing air pollution control permits are designed to protect public health. While all fine particulate matter is damaging to inhale, the crystalline silica dust associated with frac sand mining can cause silicosis, a deadly lung disease that sets off a cascade of autoimmune responses that can lead to cancer. Because respirable, crystalline silica dust is a known carcinogen, it is critically important to the people living near these facilities that the legal standards be properly implemented.

Some of the problems with the air pollution control permit include that:

  • The DNR did not include fugitive dust in modeling to determine whether the facility would meet ambient air quality standards.
  • Past noncompliance with permits demonstrate that Preferred Sands can’t meet its permit limits and won’t comply with ambient air standards.
  • Permit limits on emissions of particulate matter that are too low for the facility to meet.
  • The DNR didn’t require compliance emission tests (stack tests).
  • The DNR did not include enough recordkeeping and reporting requirements to demonstrate fugitive dust control.
  • The permits don’t require ambient air monitoring for PM2.5 (the type of PM that is more harmful to health) and the ambient air monitoring requirements are too vague.
  • The DNR refused to conduct an environmental assessment of the impact of this facility, taking into account impacts of similar facilities nearby.

The petitioners filed for a contested case hearing on February 14, 2013. On March 25, the DNR recognized their right to a contested case hearing for the first three problems listed above, but they denied a hearing for the last four points. We filed a request with a state circuit court on July 8, 2013 to ask a judge to review and reverse the DNR’s decision and recognize that the citizens who live near the underregulated frac sand mine deserve to have a contested case hearing on all of the problems associated with the mine, including the public health concerns with ambient air regulation and monitoring and the need for an environmental assessment done by our state’s natural resources protection agency.