DNR To Mull Frac Sand Study, Legislators May Strip Local Control Over Mines

January 26, 2015

The Department of Natural Resources wants to look at the environmental, health and economic effects of the growing frac sand industry in Wisconsin amid rumblings that Republican legislators may again try to remove local control over frac sand facilities.

The DNR Board is expected to consider the department’s request for a comprehensive study at a meeting this week. More than 100 frac sand mining, processing and distribution facilities pepper western and northwestern Wisconsin. Frac sand is a fine white sand used to dig deep wells for oil and natural gas in other parts of the U.S.

Earlier, Republican Senator Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurt said he may try again to take away the authority of local governments to site and regulate frac sand facilities. Senate Republicans floated similar unsuccessful proposals during the 2013-14 legislative session.

Along with the explosion in frac sand facilities and efforts to control where they are located has come a steady flow of campaign contributions to Republican Governor Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature in recent years, topped off with two contributions totaling $200,000 to the state Republican Party in 2014 from a Texas-based frac sand company executive.

The $200,000 in contributions to the state Republican Party were made by Robert Rasmus, co-founder of Houston-based Hi-Crush Proppants, in September and October. The contributions closely followed a $52,000 fine levied against the company in July by the state of Wisconsin for operating two wells at its mine in Augusta without DNR approval.

In addition to the party contributions, Rasmus and Hi-Crush chief operating officer Jeffries Alston contributed a total of $10,000 to Walker in 2012 and 2013.

Overall, individual contributions from frac sand facility operators to candidates for statewide office and the legislature totaled nearly $143,000 from 2007 through July 2014, with Walker getting more than a third of it at $50,134, followed by the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate at $8,250. The committee is used by Republican Senate leaders to raise money from powerful special interests to spend at election time to help GOP Senate incumbents and candidates.

Topping the list of frac sand industry contributors to the candidates were Steve and Scott Mathy, whose family owns Mathy Construction in Onalaska, at $35,350 and $18,400, respectively, and Mathy vice president William Atterholt of New Richmond at $12,050 between 2007 and July 2014.