Wisconsin progressive on funding historic renovation, totalitarian on sand mining

Some good news, some bad. A step forward, a step back.

Wisconsin’s Republican-led state Assembly has passed a bill that will double the amount of tax credit awarded for renovating historic buildings, defined as anything built before 1936. This is a rather progressive bit of public investment in both historical preservation and urban/small town renewal, even if it is aimed at two specific sites. Many older, depressed communities in the state could benefit. It’s an uncommonly wise but welcome spending of tax dollars, estimated to be at least $8.6 million over the next two years.

But just when you think Wisconsin’s ruling Republicans might be moving “forward”, you pick up the newspaper to find that they have taken two steps back. For it seems that some Republican representatives want to “open Wisconsin for business”, in this case, frac sand mining, by preventing small towns from regulating such mining through any means other than zoning, a cumbersome process. Stricter local air quality standards would also not be allowed.

Frac sand mining is not benign. Here’s how the Midwest Environmental Advocates website sums it up:

“While not as dangerous as the sulfuric acid produced by metallic mining, sand and silica from the mines, or from trucks transporting the minerals, is easily airborne and can be a serious public health hazard. Non-metallic mines require large quantities of water to control dust, or to wash sand before its sale. Diverting large amounts of surface or groundwater can impair the rights of nearby or downstream users as well as harm the environment. Finally, frac sand mining uses a mixture of chemical flocculants that can contaminate rivers and drinking water supplies when the diverted water is discharged. Unfortunately, non-metallic mines are much harder to monitor because there are currently no state regulations that specifically govern their conduct, and town and county regulations for these facilities rarely exist.”

And now that towns are trying try to regulate or stop sand mining, the state is making it harder.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out, the State Supreme Court in 2012 ruled in favor of Cooks Valley, saying the town had the right to demand the mining company first secure a permit. Thus our Republicans in Madison are seeking to circumvent the court ruling and the concern of towns by writing a bill with the able assistance, as the Journal Sentinel reports, of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association. Gov. Walker should perhaps change the slogan to “Wisconsin’s Capitol open to business, closed to concerned citizens.”

While Wisconsin is busy making sure small towns don’t interfere with Gov. Walker’s push for jobs at any price, Minnesota is working with the City of Winona to measure the air pollution caused by frac sand dust falling off of the mining trucks. Silica dust affects the lungs, causing diseases, including cancer. Minnesota will install air monitors by the side of the road leading to the sand mine beginning in January. Wisconsin, as Wisconsin Public Radio reports, does not monitor the dust on roads. Nor does Wisconsin do a particularly good job of monitoring air quality at the mines. The state reportedly has only 13 air monitors to cover more than 100 operating sand mines. The money is not there, says the DNR, nor are there enough DNR mining inspectors, according to State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, reports the Superior Telegram.

For a close and moving look at what one Wisconsin town is doing to fight a sand mine, see this piece on Glenwood City from WIvoices.org.

All jobs and all development are not created equal. There are good jobs, clean jobs, jobs that restore and help communities prosper in a healthy, sustainable way. And then there are lousy, dirty, destructive jobs that pay little or pay some well and cost others too much. We need to encourage and develop much more of the first kind of work, and we need our state government to please stop promoting and enabling the dirty, destructive kind.

Update–here’s a link to Clean Wisconsin which explains how concerned citizens can take action against the sand mining bill.

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