WHITEHALL, Wis. – After issuing more frac sand mining permits than any other county in Minnesota or Wisconsin over the past 36 months, Trempealeau County will take a hiatus to consider possible adverse health effects on citizens.
The County Board, applauded by an overflow crowd, Monday night voted overwhelmingly in favor of a moratorium of up to a year on permitting new sand facilities or allowing existing sites to expand.
"I'm very pleased," said Sally Miller, the board member who authored the resolution. "This is going to slow things down and give us a chance to catch our breath."
Proponents of the plan had argued it would allow the scenic county that sits across the Mississippi River from Winona, Minn., to evaluate whether sand mining has a human cost. Those types of questions have largely gone unanswered as the county has approved 26 companies mining and processing silica sand on a total of 4,733 acres — and counting. County officials say interest in forming new mines remains strong.
"It would give the county some time to research the health issues and take a closer look," said Kevin Lien, director of Trempealeau's Environment and Land Use Committee. "Right now the public has questions that we can't answer."
The moratorium in Trempealeau County, which will start Aug. 30, is not unique. Several other counties and townships on both sides of the river have taken breaks to satisfy public concerns about a burgeoning new industry that has brought more than 125 mines, processing plants and rail sites to the region.
But few communities have embraced frac sand mining with the pro-business fervor seen in Trempealeau. Monday's vote came hard on the heels of ethics charges against a County Board supervisor who is being investigated for allegedly cloaking his own frac sand interests. The board member, David Suchla, denies any self-dealing and the case is under initial review by a special prosecutor in neighboring LaCrosse County. Suchla left Monday's meeting when the moratorium discussion began and he did not vote. The measure passed 12-0, with two abstentions and three members not present to vote.
A previous attempt to enact a moratorium failed on an 8-8 vote in May, also with Suchla not voting. The revived measure which passed Monday focused solely on community health and safety issues.
Miller, who launched the investigation of Suchla with a written and sworn complaint last week, said she would "blow a holy gasket" if the health review committee includes anyone with a direct financial interest in frac sand mining.
"It is our job to make sure we have a healthy environment for every man, woman and child in the county," Miller said.
As amended, the final resolution creates a committee that will collect, analyze and recommend whether sand mining adversely affects water, air, noise conditions, lighting conditions, the stability of communities and other measures important to the health and safety of county residents.
The committee also could recommend changes to the county's ordinances, staffing and overall approach to mining a mineral that is in demand for a growing number of oil and gas hydraulic fracturing rigs in North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania and other states.
"The committee isn't going to be confined to one issue," said Sherry Rhoda, Trempealeau's health director. "It's for anything health and safety and for all people, including tourists."
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213