- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A Republican state senator has stepped back from his plans to curtail local sand mine regulations, introducing a bill Wednesday that would shield existing mines from new restrictions but allow municipalities to impose regulations on new operations.

Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst introduced a bill in October that would have gone much further. That proposal would have barred local governments from imposing mine regulations under their authority to regulate health, safety and welfare as well as prohibited them from adopting their own water and air quality standards, blasting ordinances and collecting fees to cover road damage before it occurs.

Tiffany contended then that the bill would eliminate an emerging patchwork of overzealous local ordinances that were cramping the state’s booming sand mine industry. But the measure ran into criticism; opponents ripped the proposal as a blatant attack on local control and warned the changes could create health hazards.

Under the new bill, existing sand mines wouldn’t be subject to new zoning ordinances that are more restrictive than what they currently operate under. The provision is designed to codify in state law court findings that local governments can’t zone a business out of existence, Tiffany said.

The bill also would protect sand mines from any other new local ordinance or license requirement if they’re operating within the year preceding the ordinance or requirement is adopted. The bill doesn’t include bans on local environmental standards, blasting ordinances and road fee collections laid out in the first bill.

Tiffany said the bill ensured local governments can’t run existing sand mines out of business with unreasonable ordinances. The measure doesn’t go as far as he would like - new mines will still have to deal with what he called a “gauntlet” of local regulations, he said - but he had to scale it back to win support. A statement he released Wednesday quoted the leaders of both the state towns association, which had registered against the original bill, and the counties association saying they don’t oppose the new measure.

“This is the legislative process,” Tiffany said. “Not what we wanted to accomplish at the start, but no less important.”

A message The Associated Press left at the towns association Wednesday evening wasn’t immediately returned. Kyle Christianson, government affairs director for the counties association, confirmed the organization is neutral on the bill.

The Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, which registered in support of the original bill, backs the new proposal as well, the association’s president, Rich Budinger, said in a statement Wednesday.

“WISA supports this legislation, which ensures that locally approved, legally permitted non-metallic mines can keep operating responsibly, creating jobs and investing in Wisconsin,” Budinger said. “The bill prevents misuse of municipal … powers to change the rules for existing permitted operations and properties.”

The bill’s fate is uncertain. The Assembly’s mining committee has scheduled a public hearing on the measure for Monday, but it’s unclear whether GOP leaders support the bill. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, says Vos will monitor what happens in the hearing. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t immediately return a message.

Wisconsin’s sand mine industry has boomed over the last few years, mirroring advances in hydraulic fracturing, which uses sand mixes with water and chemicals to extract natural gas and crude oil from rock formations. The number of mines in the state grew from just five in 2010 to 105 as of April 2013, according to the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The boom has stoked worries about potential health problems from silica dust and damage to roads, leading local governments to pass their own ordinances.

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