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Fairmount Minerals frac sand mining air pollution permit challenge

— Residents of Arcadia, WI are challenging FML Sand, LLC's frac sand company’s air pollution permit in order to protect air quality and their community’s health from silica dust.

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Note: In September, 2013, Fairmount Minerals Sand, LLC became the successor in interest for FTS International Services, LLC. The Fairmount Minerals company formally became Fairmount Santrol in October 2014. Though ownership of the proposed mining operation's permits changed, the citizen challenge to the existing air pollution permit continued. This webpage has been updated to reflect the change in ownership and name, from FTS International Proppants to Fairmount Minerals to Fairmount Santrol.

In December, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Boldt issued a decision that required the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to include ambient air monitoring requirements in the Fairmount Santrol permit. The DNR had originally granted the mining company a variance from those requirements as the agency has done for many silica sand mines. Residents of Arcadia, however, challenged the permit alleging that sand mines such as Fairmount Santrol’s are not eligible for a variance and must conduct ambient air monitoring. They also alleged that the mines must monitor for PM2.5, which, until now, the DNR has never required a sand mine to monitor for.

Judge Boldt agreed with the residents, finding that the DNR’s granting of the variance was illegal and that the facility must conduct ambient air monitoring until it can show that the public will not be exposed to significant amounts of particulate matter from its facilities’ emissions.

Fairmount Santrol submitted an ambient air monitoring plan to the DNR in February, 2015. The DNR rejected that plan in April, in part because it only proposed to monitor for PM10 and not PM2.5. In the past, the agency has taken the position that its regulations do not require PM2.5 monitoring, but Judge Boldt’s decision makes it clear that, at least in the case of Fairmount Santrol’s mine, the pollutant of concern is PM2.5. The DNR’s regulations provide the agency with the authority to require Fairmount Santrol to monitor for PM2.5.

Citizens have been calling on the DNR to require mines to monitor for PM2.5 for years. The agency has steadfastly refused to do so. Minnesota requires mines to monitor for PM2.5 and we hope this will now set a precedent for future permits in Wisconsin. We await the company’s updated air monitoring plan and the DNR’s response. The deadline for the company to submit the plan is January 27, 2016, or 30 days prior to the commencement of construction at the site if construction will begin before January 27.

Case Summary

In the Town of Arcadia, Wisconsin, there are eight mines in a five-mile radius. There are 26 permitted or proposed frac sand mines in Trempealeau County. The volume of existing and potential mining activity in Trempealeau County causes area residents to have deep concerns about air quality and their health in addition to water depletion and pollution, destabilized land values and quality of life issues.

In 2013, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approved an air pollution permit for Fairmount Santrol (then FTS International Proppants), a frac sand mining company from Texas, to build a silica sand mining and processing facility in a mostly agricultural and residential area of Arcadia. But before the permit was approved, a draft of the company's air pollution control permit application was publically released by the DNR in February, and Midwest Environmental Advocates worked with an air engineer with experience in reviewing pollution permits to comment on the draft.

The engineer found inaccuracies or errors in the drafted permit that, if approved, could allow the company to discharge particulates and nitrogen dioxide in amounts that violate federal and state air pollution standards. The engineer’s comments included critiques that

  • the processing facility didn’t have the technology to effectively limit emissions,
  • there weren’t enough requirements for compliance testing and ambient air monitoring,
  • and that the permit didn’t have enough information to ensure that fugitive dust would be controlled.
  • Additionally, the DNR didn’t require an environmental assessment to consider the overall impact of existing and proposed mining activity in the area.

The modeling procedures used by the DNR to simulate and predict a facility’s air quality impact is a key part of an air pollution control permit. The DNR uses modeling technology to determine what emission limitations must be included in the permit to meet state and federal standards and to protect public health and the environment. But in issuing the permit, the DNR altogether failed to model the facility’s nitrogen dioxide emissions. It also failed to account for the facility’s fugitive dust - a significant source of silica emissions at the site. Had the DNR correctly modeled the mine's emissions, it would have shown that the emission limits included in the permit are not stringent enough to ensure that the facility will comply with state and federal standards.

Concerned citizens who live near or adjacent to the mine site wrote letters of opposition to the DNR or expressed concerns about the health of their family members and livestock at a public hearing on the draft permit. But the DNR ignored their concerns and on June 24, 2013 approved an air pollution control permit that had no meaningful changes to better protect air quality.

On July 24 2013, ten citizens who live near or adjacent to the company's frac sand mine in Arcadia, WI petitioned the DNR for a hearing before the State Division of Hearings and Appeals to review the permit the DNR issued to the company which could allow its frac sand mine to discharge particulates and nitrogen dioxide in amounts that violate federal and state air pollution standards. Ultimately, the DHA would have the power to modify the permit or send it back to the DNR to require the agency to issue a permit that protects public health.

A contested case hearing was held on April 8-10, 2014 in Madison and sworn public comments were taken into the record at the Trempealeau County courthouse on April 11, 2014.

Stronger air pollution permits are needed for frac sand mining Wisconsin because they establish the standards under which mining companies operate. Permits also lay out what powers the DNR has to enforce air protections in the future. Simply, strong air pollution permits are a critical part of protecting public health. Midwest Environmental Advocates is supporting citizens in Trempealeau County who want the frac sand industry to follow the laws that protect our health and the health of our environment.

On December 1, 2014, The Division of Hearings and Appeals reversed the DNR’s decision to allow Fairmount Santrol to build a sand mine and processing facility without ambient air monitoring to track silica dust.

As modified by this decision, the company's air pollution permit will include an ambient air monitoring requirement to ensure that the facility, one of eight frac sand mines in a five-mile radius in Arcadia, wouldn’t create more silica dust than federal and state law allow. It is important for courts and state agencies to recognize that, at minimum, frac sand mines and processing facilities should monitor for both types of dangerous fine particulates, PM10 and PM2.5.

But citizens remain concerned about the impacts of ever increasing frac sand mining in our state on their air, water and way of life. Because the DNR has not been requiring all facilities to install ambient air monitors for PM2.5, the smallest and most dangerous particulate matter, we can’t know the full impact. Independent studies are coming out that suggest facilities may be contributing to unsafe levels of very fine particulates in the ambient air.

Requiring this mining operation to monitor its impact on air quality is progress. But citizens cannot and should not have to go to court to challenge each inadequate permit, one permit at a time. That is why citizens asked the DNR for a strategic analysis to study the full environmental impact of frac sand mining in Wisconsin. Petitioners asked for an environmental assessment in this case and were denied. To understand the big picture of frac sand mining’s impact on our air, water and land, we need a comprehensive environmental analysis for the whole state.

Related Media Coverage

Frac Sand Health Fears Rise as Mining Booms in Wisconsin: Residents push for answers that are not coming from state officials – Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Alison Dirr, 10/6/2013