Arsenic Levels At Bankrupt Chippewa County Frac Sand Mine 7 Times Higher Than State Cleanup Standards


By Rich Kremer
Wisconsin Public Radio (12/16/19)

A state review of a potential frac sand mine reclamation project in Chippewa County has found high concentrations of arsenic and other heavy metals at the site and left the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources with “reasonable concern” groundwater contamination may have occurred.

On Nov. 11, the DNR responded to a request from Chippewa County for a “technical review” of a plan to clean up ponds at a frac sand mining and processing facility owned by Superior Silica Sands in the Town of Auburn. Known as process water ponds, the basins allow muds that are washed from grains of frac sand to settle from water that is reused in the process.

A letter from DNR Nonmetallic Mining coordinator Roberta Walls to Chippewa County Director of Conservation Dan Masterpole said mud samples from the ponds exceeded state safety levels for arsenic, a naturally occurring metal listed as a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Officials with Chippewa County didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

In an interview with WPR, Dave Rozeboom, DNR northern region remediation and redevelopment program manager, said administrative code sets an arsenic “Residual Contact Level” (RCL) of three parts per million (ppm) while a pair of samples taken from holding ponds at the mine had RCLs of 17.7 ppm and 21.6 ppm.

“So, these are certainly above our industrial direct contact standards,” said Rozeboom.

But because arsenic is a naturally occurring compound, Rozeboom said, the samples taken from Superior Silica Sands’ ponds have to be evaluated against background levels, which will require more testing.

In 2013, the DNR published a map showing background arsenic levels from 664 statewide soil samples. None of those taken in the vicinity of the Chippewa County mine showed arsenic levels higher than 8.3 ppm.

Even if mud from the ponds has arsenic concentrations higher than those found offsite, Rozeboom said it wouldn’t require immediate cleanup so long as the mine was still operating under a valid permit. He said that’s because the material is underwater and the DNR assumes workers wouldn’t be working in a process water pond.

“But if that facility closes and the permit is no longer applicable, part of the reclamation plan must require management of that material,” said Rozeboom. …

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(Commoner Call photo by Mark L. Taylor, 2020. Open source and free for non-derivative use with link to )