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StateImpact

Bill to Change Permit Process for Mines in Sensitive Aquifer Clears Senate Committee

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

A gate into a silica sand mining operation near Mill Creek in south-central Oklahoma.

When Oklahomans apply for a permit from most state agencies to, say, dam a river or build a wind farm, formal public hearings are held before the permit is issued, where evidence is presented, concerns are voiced, and legally binding decisions are made.

But things work a little differently at the state Department of Mines, which oversees operations mining for sand and limestone in the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, one of the most sensitive water resources in the state. And many of that area’s elected leaders want a change.

Right now, formal hearings for mining permits are scheduled after a permit has been issued. Local residents are able to weigh in at informal hearings before the permit is issued. But Amy Ford, president of the advocacy group Citizens for the Protection of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, says these informal meetings just don’t carry the same weight.

“There are really no rules for the informal hearing. It’s kind of a free-for-all for lack of better words. There’s no structure. There’s no admission of evidence or anything,” Ford says. “Somebody from the Department of Mines, or sometimes a hearing examiner, just kind of sits in there and listens to everybody.”

The Department of Mines then decides whether to issue a permit or hold more informal hearings, but a formal hearing won’t happen until after the permit application is approved.

“That step is on the back end of the permit,” Ford says. “And so the problem is the permit has been approved without having to go through the administrative rules process.”

That might not be the case much longer, however. A bill by State Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, would do away with the informal hearing in favor of formal ones before a decision is made about whether to approve the permit.

Senate Bill 1184 on Feb. 20 passed unanimously out of the Senate Energy Committee and now moves to the full Senate for more consideration.

StateImpact has done extensive reporting on mining in the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, which is perhaps the most sensitive water source in the state, and serves several towns in south-central Oklahoma.

Copyright 2021 StateImpact Oklahoma. To see more, visit StateImpact Oklahoma.