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Buffalo Co. study: extend the frac moratorium (08/29/2012)
By Sarah Squires

A Buffalo County Health Department report on frac sand recommends that the current county moratorium on new sand operations be extended beyond its planned October 31 expiration date.

A continued moratorium would allow further study of the industry and potential health and safety effects. It would also allow time for air quality monitoring to provide baseline data on existing dust levels before any new operations start up.

The document represents months of research by county health department staff, and includes a list of recommendations for regulating the frac sand industry with regard to air and water quality. It asks that the county incorporate an air quality monitoring plan into any Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for frac sand operations. It also calls for monitoring for baseline data one month prior to any activity, including for some of the smallest, and most dangerous, dust particles—called “PM 2.5."

The report also recommends that new sand operation CUPs include a requirement for a “review committee.” This review committee would periodically review the CUP, “allowing for information gained through studies such as those to be conducted in Chippewa and/or La Crosse counties or the release of new standards such as those from the EPA to be considered for incorporation into the existing CUP for the purpose of adequately protecting health and safety,” says the report.

Additionally, the study asks that the existing requirement for baseline and continuous water monitoring on adjacent residential wells be continued.

When the Buffalo County Board voted to enact a moratorium in March, it asked that the health department, along with zoning and highway departments and UW-Extension, study the industry and present recommendations within 150 days. Other departmental reports are expected in the coming days.


There is little data on the question of whether frac sand businesses cause respirable dust to travel far offsite in amounts that would pose risks to t he health of neighbors. But studies have shown that silica dust is linked to the respiratory disease silicosis. Additionally, diesel fumes are considered a possible carcinogen that can contribute to lung cancer.

Most of the information about silica and diesel fumes as they relate to health originates from studies on occupational hazards for workers who are exposed to higher levels of the particulates than could be expected offsite. “...but in a community setting (ambient air), air monitoring data comes from equipment placed onsite, not in the community, and frequently begins after mining begins (so there can be no comparison to air quality before mining); without monitoring and health risk data, it’s difficult to create an effective air quality monitoring plan for a mining project,” reads the report.

Pre- and post-startup air monitoring (according to information collected by the health department from Citizens of Chippewa Falls, Save the Hills Alliance) was done at the Chippewa Falls EOG processing and transport ation plant. The post-start-up measurements were collected between January 6, 2012 and March 21, 2012, and showed: 3.5 percent of days showed dust possibly exceeded the EPA PM 2.5 standard over 24 hours; 37 percent showed possible exceedances of EPA PM 2.5 standard on average hourly basis; and 51 percent have at least one hour which possibly exceeds the EPA PM 2.5 standard.


Health department staff interviewed a number of state agency representatives about the frac sand industry, including several water and groundwater specialists.

Kevin Masarik, a Hydrologist with the Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center at U-W Stevens Point, said that groundwater is a “low concern when compared to other mining,” according to the report. He said the de-watering process , where water is pumped from a hole created by mining, could cause the water table to draw down, and that mining may reduce the amount of filtration for the water as there is less sand to filter it as it travels to the water table.

Tom Woletz, senior manager with the water division of the Wisconsin DNR, said people become concerned about high capacity wells associated with wet sand processing facilities. But he said the amount of water used for agriculture in the region greatly exceeds that used for the frac sand industry. Additionally, he said that about 80 percent of water used for the sand industry is returned to its aquifer -- a lot more than is recycled with agricultural operations.

Buffalo County leaders will continue to study staff reports on the frac sand industry in the coming weeks, as the planned moratorium expiration date of October 31 approaches. Keep reading the Winona Post for the latest news.



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