Industrial sand mining overview
Sand mining has occurred in Wisconsin for more than 100 years. Recent growth in the petroleum industry has created a high demand for sand that can be used for hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to extract natural gas and crude oil from rock formations in other states. Wisconsin has high-quality sand resources and, as a result, the DNR has seen a substantial rise in permit requests to the department to mine industrial sand. Industrial sand is sometimes called "frac" sand or silica sand.
The extracted sand is often processed locally. Processing of the sand typically involves washing and separating the sand into grain sizes suitable for hydraulic fracturing. The sand is then shipped out of state for use at gas and oil fields for hydraulic fracturing. The material removed during processing may be sold as a byproduct or is returned to the mine site as part of the reclamation process.
Given the interest in hydraulic fracturing and Wisconsin's abundant supply of raw materials, the topic of sand mining in Wisconsin has generated interest from regulators, legislators, local governments and the general public.
The department is committed to working with the sand mining industry while protecting natural resources through permits, regulations and compliance. Industrial sand mines and other related operations must follow the same state requirements to protect public health and the environment as other nonmetallic mining operations in Wisconsin. This includes getting necessary air and water permits from DNR and following state reclamation laws.
The DNR is responsible for mine associated permits covering storm water, air quality, wetlands (when applicable), high-capacity wells, solid/hazardous waste, drinking water and endangered/threatened species. Failure to follow any state laws or regulations regarding industrial sand mining could result in state enforcement action.
The DNR has also provided additional inspections and air quality monitoring beyond normal compliance, assigned a senior/experienced environmental program staff to be agency's "single point of contact" on sand mining issues, hired two additional sand mining staff and established several agency-wide teams to work across programs on key sand mining issues.
Like all other industrial activities in Wisconsin, the sand mining industry is extensively regulated through several different levels of government.
Mine reclamation and floodplain and shoreland zoning issues are dealt with at the local level with DNR oversight. Other industrial sand mining issues – zoning, noise, etc. – may be covered under local government ordinances and jurisdictions. They are not the jurisdiction of the DNR. Also, any health issues related to sand mining are the jurisdiction of local health officials and the state Department of Health Services.
Location of mines and processing plants in Wisconsin
Air monitoring data
Go to the Air section for more information.
Industrial sand operations that have a requirement in their permit to monitor for particulate matter are required to provide ambient monitoring data to the DNR. The DNR Air Management Program works with industrial sand facilities to provide technical assistance and review of monitor sites near the facilities, as required by their permits. Learn more about air quality.
Monitor data from industrial sand mines is submitted to the DNR on a monthly basis and is quality assured by air monitoring staff. Quality assured data is compiled into plots and the updated information is posted to the interactive map and included in the following Excel spreadsheet approximately 60-90 days after the end of each calendar quarter.
Nonmetallic mining, in general, requires a storm water permit, but other permits may be required depending on location and need. If processing sand is needed, a high capacity well may be required. If there are more than 25 employees working at the mine, a public water supply system permit may be required. If there are expected impacts to waterways and wetlands, one or more permits may be required in water resources.
Industrial sand mining studies and resources
- Silica Sand Mining in Wisconsin
- August 2011 DNR Report to the Natural Resources Board: Silica Study (AM-407)
- EPA Natural Gas Extraction - Hydraulic Fracturing
- EPA's Study of Hydraulic Fracturing and its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources
Endangered species resources
Related codes and statutes
Frequently asked questions
- How long has sand mining been around in Wisconsin?
Industrial sand mining has occurred in Wisconsin for more than 100 years. However, recently there has been an increase in industrial sand mining proposals and related operations in Wisconsin.
- How many sand mining operations are there in Wisconsin?
See the "Current site totals" table on our Locations of industrial sand mines and process plants page.
- Why has there been an increase in sand mining in Wisconsin?
The increase in state sand mining operations and for mining associated permit requests is attributable to the strong demand for high-quality sand and a surge in hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking.
- What is hydraulic fracturing or "hydrofracking?"
Hydrofracking is an industrial process involving the use of sand to extract gas and petroleum deposits from the land. It is a technique used by the petroleum industry to extract natural gas and/or crude oil from rock formations and requires a certain quality of sand in the process (size, shape and hardness).
- Is there hydrofracking in Wisconsin?
Extracted sand is shipped out of state to be used at gas and oil fields for hydrofracking. There is NO hydrofracking for oil and gas in Wisconsin.
State laws and regulations
- What kinds of laws must sand mining operations follow?
Industrial sand mines and other related operations must follow the same state requirements to protect public health and the environment as other nonmetallic mining operations in Wisconsin. This includes getting necessary air and water permits from DNR and following state reclamation laws.
- What does DNR regulate?
The department is responsible for mine associated permits covering storm water, air quality monitoring, wetlands (when applicable), high-capacity wells, solid/hazardous waste, drinking water and endangered/threatened species.
- What specific permits are required?
At a minimum, all industrial sand mines require a General Nonmetallic Storm water WPDES (WI Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permit issued by the DNR. Most will also require some type of an air permit, either a Registration Operation Permit or a site-specific construction and operation permit and, depending upon what is going to occur at a site and where it is going to occur, high capacity well permits, or wetland permits may be required.
- What about endangered or threatened species and mining reclamation?
All mine and processing sites will be reviewed for endangered and threatened species and archeological value, and all mines will be subject to the reclamation requirements of NR 135, Wis. Adm. Code, administered at the local level.
- What else is DNR doing?
The department has provided additional inspections and air quality monitoring beyond normal compliance, assigned a senior/experienced environmental program staff to be agency's "single point of contact" on all sand mining issues, hired two additional sand mining staff and established several agency-wide teams to work across programs on key sand mining issues.
- What about fugitive dust?
Industrial sand mine sources that will have the capacity to produce more than 2,000 tons/month on a 12-month averages basis must also submit fugitive dust plans to the DNR as part of the air permitting process.
Other jurisdictions and regulations
- What issues are not under the DNR's jurisdiction?
Traffic volume and noise (e.g., trucks, trains), safety, lighting, road deterioration, effect on property values, blasting etc. are not the authority/jurisdiction of the DNR; these issues fall under other federal or state agencies and/or local purview.
- What do local governments like counties and municipalities do?
Local governments are responsible for mine reclamation and floodplain and shoreland zoning issues, with DNR oversight.
- What additional jurisdictions do other state and local governments handle?
Other industrial sand mining issues – zoning, noise, etc. – may be covered under local government ordinances and jurisdictions. They are not the jurisdiction of the DNR. Also, any health issues related to sand mining are the jurisdiction of local health officials and the state Department of Health Services.
Enforcement and compliance
- Does the DNR enforce mining laws at sand mining operations?
Yes. Failure to follow any state laws or regulations regarding industrial sand mining could result in environmental enforcement action by the state.
- How does the compliance/enforcement process work?
The department utilizes a stepped enforcement process. That process begins with DNR issuing a "Notice of Violation" (NOV) or a "Notice of Noncompliance" (NON) and may be followed up with an enforcement conference held by DNR Environmental Enforcement Program staff. Also, the department has the option of referral to the Department of Justice to seek forfeitures and court-ordered corrective actions if appropriate or necessary.
Throughout these steps, the regulated entity is provided with direction on what violations have been identified and given a timeframe in which to correct those violations. Also, these steps can be skipped or repeated at any point depending on the specifics of the situation.
In some instances, we also have civil citation authority with the assistance of the DNR's wardens. Citations are tried through the local court systems.
- Are there enough people working in compliance enforcement to monitor this industry?
The department has placed a priority on ensuring industry compliance with environmental laws. Recently the state budget just approved hiring two additional staff to address sand mining issues.
- Why do some violations lead to citation or referrals, and not others?
Each case is evaluated on an individual basis and enforcement decisions are made using a number of factors, including the actual or potential impact on human health and the environment; nature or toxicity of the pollutant; number and duration of violations; compliance history; and responsiveness to correcting the violations.
- Why are there so many more water violations than air quality violations?
There are a number of water-related laws that apply to this industry. For example, water regulations apply to proper abandonment of exploratory boreholes, erosion control and storm water management, work in or near waterways, wetlands protection, de-watering of mining areas and wastewater generated from "washing" sand as part of processing the material.
Air issues, while no less important, have so far tended to be fewer in number and compliance problems have largely been associated with fugitive emissions control – keeping dust from blowing off-site, for example – and proper construction of or emissions from processing equipment.
- What else has the DNR done to ensure existing air regulations are implemented appropriately?
The department has also developed the following air quality initiatives:
- allocated thousands of Air Management staff hours to help address air quality concerns associated with the industry, far beyond normal compliance efforts;
- worked with sand mining operations in regard to the appropriate placement of more air monitors than is normally required;
- requiring fugitive dust plans earlier in the process, at the time of permit application, to ensure these plans are in place prior to operation;
- developed a fugitive dust plan template to ensure operators know which best management practices are expected to minimize dust; and
- taken enforcement actions where appropriate.
Abandonment of exploratory drill holes
- Has there been an increase in soil exploration drilling?
With the rapid expansion of industrial sand mining in the state, the state is also seeing an increase in the amount of soil-exploration drilling as landowners and others seek to identify large sand deposits.
- What is a drill hole?
State law defines a drill hole as an excavation or opening deeper than it is wide, that extends more than 10 feet below the ground surface.
- What risk do drill holes pose?
Unless properly filled and sealed, abandoned drill holes present a risk to groundwater because they can create a pathway to contaminate underground aquifers.
- What does state law require?
State law requires proper filling and sealing of all drill holes exceeding 10 feet in depth or which intersect groundwater, using specific materials and methods.