Wisconsin frac sand sites doubleBLAIR, Wis. — Tucked behind a hill in rural Trempealeau County, farmland undergoes an industrial transformation.
By: By Kate Prengaman/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Superior Telegram
BLAIR, Wis. — Tucked behind a hill in rural Trempealeau County, farmland undergoes an industrial transformation.
Outside this city of 1,300, Preferred Sands turns Wisconsin’s sandy soil into a hot commodity. A wall of green trees opens to a vast expanse of sand buzzing with activity. Excavators mine and conveyors carry the sand from towering stockpiles up into the processing plant. Every week, this facility ships 7,500 tons of sand by rail to oil and gas fields in Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania.
This 400-acre mine and processing facility is one of 20 such operations that have sprung up in the past two years in Trempealeau County. The mines and processing plants produce strong, fine-grained sand in high demand for a type of oil and natural gas drilling known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The number of Wisconsin frac sand mining operations has more than doubled in the past year, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found, and the state leads the nation in production.
“We have the best sand in the world,” said Tom Woletz, the frac sand specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “And we have a lot of sand.”
A year ago, the center identified 41 facilities operating or proposed in the state. This summer 87 are operating or under construction, with another 20 facilities in the proposal stage.
“Our office has turned into a zoo,” said Kevin Lien, director of land management for Trempealeau County. “We have seven applications for mining permits in July. Everyone here is engulfed in mining. It’s a huge workload for us.”
Frac sand fever has hit much of west-central Wisconsin, catching residents and local governments by surprise. Permit applications have come in faster than residents or officials can process them — or the implications for their communities.
The frac sand boom has divided residents into those who believe mining will create sorely needed jobs in rural Wisconsin and those who fear the impacts these mines may have on human health, road safety and the environment.
Some communities have readily welcomed frac sand mining for economic reasons. Others, including Buffalo, Dunn, Eau Claire and Pepin counties and a handful of towns, slapped on temporary moratoriums to give them time to review and update their land-use regulations.
The demand for sand has soared in tandem with the explosion in controversial hydraulic fracturing operations across the country. The sand is used to prop open fractures in the bedrock, allowing oil or natural gas to flow past.
Frac sand production has increased seven-fold in the past decade, according to the United States Geological Survey. Thomas Dolley, a mineral commodity specialist at the USGS, said he can’t divulge state-specific numbers, but he confirmed that Wisconsin is currently the largest producer of frac sand.
“It’s like a land rush for this material,” Dolley said. “I’ve been covering this commodity for 11 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
But Bruce Brown, senior geologist with the Wisconsin Geological Survey, agrees with other state officials that Wisconsin may be reaching the peak of the frac sand boom.
“I think it’s going to slow down,” Brown said. “People worry that we’re going to sell out all of the sand in Wisconsin. That’s not going to happen.”
The center found that about one-third of Wisconsin’s frac sand operations are in towns with no zoning regulations. In those areas, the only control local officials have is through the reclamation permit, which primarily deals with how the site will be returned to a productive land use, like agriculture or a park, after mining is complete.
“If you don’t have zoning, it makes it very difficult to say no,” said Dan Masterpole, the conservationist for Chippewa County, where frac sand facilities are located primarily in unzoned towns. “We have no authority to regulate where (mining) should occur, operations, noise, air, dust or any of those type of nuisance-related impacts.”
The DNR handles air and water regulations for all sites, zoned or not. Large mines and processing facilities must meet state air pollution limits for airborne particles, in part to reduce exposure to silica dust, a substance that can cause silicosis, a life-threatening lung disease. While silica exposure in the workplace is tightly regulated, there are no specific limits for silica dust in the open air.
In January, the state Department of Natural Resources decided that no additional regulations are needed. Since then there have been two damaging sand spills, both in May, caused in part by failure to follow existing state rules.
At a Burnett County mine, a leak in a new storage pond poured silty water into the St. Croix River for days until a hiker noticed the problem. Shortly after Preferred Sands bought the mine in Blair from a Canadian company, a wet stockpile of sediment slipped and flooded a neighboring home.
“We’ve had a huge amount of change since we had that spill,” said Todd Murchison, the regional manager for Minnesota-based Preferred Sands. “Every day, we have to leave everything so that it will be safe in case it rains two inches overnight.
“We need this stuff, we need natural gas. We need energy independence, in my opinion. I think that the key is we’re going to do it, but let’s do it right,” he said
In Gilmanton, a town of fewer than 500 people in Buffalo County, many lawns sport bright green signs proclaiming “Sand = Jobs.” About half the residents in attendance at a public hearing in June wore bright green shirts with the same slogan, provided by Glacier Sands, a mine operator applying for permits.
Company co-owner Ryan Thomas said he plans to hire about 100 employees plus local contractors for electrical, welding and other services for the four mining, processing and loading sites his Menomonie-based company is planning for Buffalo County.
For many residents, the promise of new jobs and new industry trumps all other concerns. Others worry about the how mining could change west-central Wisconsin.
Mike O’Connor, a Buffalo County resident, attended many meetings in the past year to voice his concerns about the frac sand industry, including increased heavy truck traffic on winding local roads.
“Many of us are here for Aldo Leopold’s sand country,” O’Connor said, referring to the famous Wisconsin environmentalist. “This is a really spectacular piece of the world, so to have it ripped apart is kind of emotional.
“But there is a pretty compelling story on the other side. It’s a very ambiguous issue which makes it emotionally very difficult.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All work created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.