Weir Minerals expansion deserves a fair hearing

Weir Minerals wants to expand in Madison and add 100 jobs. Given the economic climate and the city’s need for tax base, and given the company’s commitment to safety and environmental stewardship, it should be a slam dunk, right?

Are you kidding? This is Madison, after all, and any local business that serves the controversial sand mining industry probably can expect some hectoring – justified or not.

Weir Minerals Division, which manufactures slurry pumps used in the mining process, is proposing an expansion on its 28-acre Stoughton Road campus in Madison, its American headquarters, that would include the construction of a 90,000-square-foot foundry, primarily a heavy-bay production area, and the addition of the aforementioned jobs.

The company, which has eight to 10 acres that are not developed, hasn’t completed all the plans and has yet to make all of its equipment selections, so no specific dollar amount has been pegged to the expansion. Brian Compton, vice president-foundry operations, called it a “significant investment” in building and equipment.

“We currently machine-assemble pumps of various sizes for various applications, here at the Madison facility,” Compton explained. “The expansion will be a heavy-bay foundry manufacturing site. We’ll also have to expand the current machining capabilities simply to be able to machine the larger parts that are coming online as we develop our product lines.”

Weir already owns the land on which the expansion would take place. To operate a foundry, sand would be brought on site and used with the appropriate resins and molten iron to produce castings and expand Weir’s machining capability.

The company will apply for a permit with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, but also must secure approvals from the city of Madison.

Weir Minerals not only designs and manufactures slurry pumps and valves, but mill liners and cyclones used in the mining and minerals processing industries. The company, which has been adding workforce during the Wisconsin mining boom of the past two years, is poised to serve the explosion in mining operations, particularly sand mining, in Wisconsin.

When the price of gold, copper, and silver goes up – as it has – mining activity also rises, and Weir’s customers can afford to open new mines or expand capital projects in their existing mines. When they do that, they buy more equipment from Weir.

Should the company encounter opposition, the real target might not be Weir, but “fracking,” the hydraulic drilling technique that is used to extract oil and gas from deposits that are hard to access by other methods. The discovery that Wisconsin sand is ideal for use in fracking has created both economic opportunity and environmental concern.

The Department of Natural Resources has determined that existing air quality, groundwater, and surface water protection rules are sufficient, but environmentalists have raised doubts about air and water quality, particularly the possibility that a known carcinogen, crystalline silica, could be become airborne from the sand mining sites and be inhaled.

Weir’s campus is no sand mine, but it will require ample environmental review. The company already is working with the Department of Natural Resources and has been in contact with a number of the city officials and neighbors around the plant. It stands ready to meet the safety and environmental requirements that have been established, especially with a potential finger-shaped wetlands area that might touch the back of its property.

Compton said a local firm has been hired to evaluate and delineate the wetland to ensure that Weir understands exactly where it is. “If, in fact, the wetland extends into our building site, we’ll follow appropriate procedures and file the appropriate permits with state and local officials,” he stated.

Even without wetlands, Weir soon will file an application for an air permit with the state of Wisconsin. Within the city, there are a number of required permits related to construction and wastewater management. “Our facility already has a very strong wastewater and water management program in-house that’s been established, and there are any number of other local and state requirements, primarily local, that dictate how you have to build,” Compton noted. “All of those things will be going along at the same time as the air permit is being evaluated by the state.”

The company does not anticipate a problem gaining the necessary approvals. Compton cited its very strong convictions for safety, including environmental safety, and for being good neighbors. “The standards are very high, and based on the design of the facility and all of the collection equipment and all the things that will be included in the facility, we will clearly demonstrate that we are well within the parameters of the specifications required,” he said.

Thus far, the concerns over sand mining haven’t stopped the industry from sprouting in Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported today that the industry has grown in recent years from five sand mines and five processing plants to 73 mines and 37 plants, accounting for an estimated 2,780 jobs. More are on the drawing board.

I’d hate to see the 100 new manufacturing jobs, or any of Weir’s existing jobs, put in jeopardy by a nightmare of a review process. With any luck, Weir soon will be able to focus on building the foundry, finding the types of skills required to operate it, and adding those family-supporting jobs to Madison’s tax base..