Posted on January 31, 2012 by Kate Golden - 4 Comments

‘They have to let us know they’re there,’ Wisconsin DNR says

Much of the remaining habitat of the endangered Karner blue butterfly
overlaps with Wisconsin’s sandstone deposits.

By Kate Golden
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In the sand barrens of Wisconsin lives an endangered blue butterfly
[discovered, described and named by Vladimir Nabokov], and  Its range
overlaps almost perfectly with the sand that’s become a lucrative part
of a boom in natural gas drilling.

And to kill a Karner blue without a permit violates federal law.

But of the dozens of frac sand companies that have descended upon the
area, just one, Unimin, has applied to the state Department of Natural
Resources to be able to legally destroy Karner blues in its
operations, according to David Lentz, who coordinates the agency’s
Karner blue butterfly habitat conservation plan.

And only four companies have contacted the agency’s Bureau of
Endangered Resources directly.

“They have to let us know they’re there,” Lentz said. “And they haven’t been.”

His concern is that companies’ due diligence may not be perfectly diligent.

“Are they in such a rush to get to the gold that they’re not going to
consider their environmental or regulatory responsibilities, and take
that risk?” Lentz asked.

The Karner blue is just one wrinkle in the state’s struggle with this
fast-moving industry, which has homed in on Wisconsin for the quality
of its sand. In the drilling process nicknamed “fracking,” sand, water
and chemicals are blasted into wells, creating fissures in the rock
and freeing hard-to-reach pockets of oil and natural gas.

“The ‘sand boom’ took us by surprise,” noted state senior geologist
Bruce Brown in an October presentation. “Many counties were
overwhelmed by mining applications, and the scale of mining has
presented problems we haven’t dealt with before.”

The best sand for fracking is shown here in red in this slide from an
October 2011 frac sand presentation by state senior geologist Bruce
While the state Department of Transportation has been studying the
effects of transporting all the sand on the state’s roads and rail
lines, the DNR has devoted more staff to permits and enforcement. Two
staffers are working just on frac sand air pollution permits, two more
jobs have been devoted to enforcement, and since September, staffer
Tom Woletz’s entire job has been coordinating frac sand permits.

As of mid-January, the DNR had counted about 60 mines, 32 plants
either operating or being built, and 20 more proposed mines — more
than double the 41 mines or plants the Wisconsin Center for
Investigative Journalism counted in mid-July. The agency
conservatively estimated the state’s capacity at more than 12 million
tons of sand a year.

Woletz said the agency can’t say exactly how many companies are out
there and what their status is. They have no centralized industry
organization, and they are “very competitive and very secretive” when
buying land, he said.

“I don’t know that we’re trying to keep a handle on where they all
are,” Woletz said. “Our main issue is making sure that they have the
proper permits they need.”

The DNR on Tuesday issued a 43-page summary of the industry’s
processes, their potential environmental impacts and applicable

DOCUMENT: Possible environmental impacts of sand mining, Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources Jan. 31 white paper

Overall, Woletz said, the industry is “fairly well funded and they are
receptive to doing what they need to do as far as permitting and
compliance. But they want their permits at business speed,” — that is,

He, too, has learned a lot about Karners since he started this detail
in September.

‘The people’s insect’

It’s no coincidence that wherever there’s frac sand, the Karner blue
may be nearby. This quarter-size, gossamer-blue butterfly lives much
of its life on wild lupine, whose blue-purple flowers are a common
sight in Wisconsin’s sand barrens.
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