Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Next steps for improving expired, general stormwater permits for frac sand mining

May 04, 2016

Outdated water pollution regulations of frac sand mines since 2014

We know that despite the recent slowdown of the industry, frac sand mining is a very land and resource intensive process. With the potential for environmental damage from mismanaged wastewater and stormwater runoff to too much silica dust that degrades our clean air, frac sand mining needs strong regulations and oversight to protect the health of people and our environment.

Back in December 2014, we blogged about the importance of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ work to write a new and improved general permit to control frac sand mines’ wastewater and runoff when the old version of the permit expired at the end of March 2014.

During the boom of frac sand mining in Wisconsin, media reported on environmental and property damage caused by sand runoff into streams and discharges of murky water near mines. Because the old rules on how to manage stormwater and wastewater were not geared for the industrial silica sand mines that dwarf smaller rock quarries, not only was it urgent that the DNR create an updated general permit, but the agency should have stopped issuing pollution permits since the time that the old rules expired in March of 2014.

The consequences were not only seen in the spike in DNR-issued citations for companies that weren’t complying with the law, but also environmental damage reports even when the DNR concluded there were no violations of the outdated permits. The agency admitted that the expired permits weren’t working and committed to updating the rules. More details on the problem of expired, general permits were reported in the Wisconsin State Journal.

What’s new – updates on stormwater and wastewater permitting fails to include key protections

The DNR has recently released a draft of updates to the permit. The proposed changes are important to tailor water pollution management to such large, industrial facilities. But more improvements to the proposed changes are needed to fully comply with federal and state environmental laws and to allow transparency and accountability to the public for activity that may threaten the health of people and our environment.

First, the DNR needs to require complete stormwater pollution prevention plans from companies as required by state law and the federal Clean Water Act. The DNR must also assess the quality of streams or other bodies of water that would receive discharges or runoff before issuing permits. Without that water quality research, pollution permits cannot be based in the science needed to keep our waters from becoming more polluted. These antidegradation reviews are required by the federal Clean Water Act and are one of the few opportunities our state has to determine whether or not industrial activity would lower the quality of the Outstanding and Exceptional Resource Waters or Fish and Aquatic Waters of Wisconsin, including the nationally cherished trout streams in the Driftless area where silica sand can be found.

Before a permit is issued, the public needs to know complete details of what pollutants are or may be present in stormwater runoff, what streams or rivers might be affected, and what plans the company has to manage stormwater and limit contamination. This includes the metals found in frac sand mines’ wash ponds and phosphorus for which our state has numeric standards (water quality based effluent limitations, or WQBELs).

The public also needs an opportunity to comment on – and object to – the details of these plans in the same way they have the right to review and comment on manure landspreading plans for concentrated animal feeding operations before companies start or expand production. 

Most importantly, the DNR should be conducting thorough evaluations of the impacts of each mining operation before it is permitted. Through environmental impact statements, not only can we begin to understand how a frac sand mine will affect the surrounding community, but the members of that community can have an opportunity to have a voice in the permitting process. The public’s right to comment before the issuance of permits or approvals for new sources of environmental pollution is a basic part of the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act.

Midwest Environmental Advocates submitted comments to the DNR at the end of April to encourage the agency to improve its draft of frac sand mines’ stormwater and wastewater management permits. Our comments also show that without these needed improvements, Wisconsin will continue the trend of the lack of compliance with the Clean Water Act that prompted the Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the current federal scrutiny of our state's water pollution permitting program. We hope the agency will include these avenues for sound science and meaningful public participation before finalizing the general permit.

/ tagged: government, frac, frac sand, water