Quantcast
Energy

Mining Companies Invade Wisconsin for Frac-Sand

Pilar Gerasimo

The recent boom in hydrofracking for natural gas and oil has resulted in a little-reported side boom—a sand-rush in western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota, where we just happen to have the nation's richest, most accessible supply of the high-quality silica sand required for fracking operations.

Unfortunately, most of that silica sand lies beneath our beautiful wooded hills and fertile farmland, and within agricultural and residential communities, all of which are now being ripped apart by sand mines interests eager to get at the riches below. This open pit mining is, in many respects, similar to the mountaintop removal going on in Appalachian coal country—except that here, it's hilltop and farm field removal. The net effect on our landscape, natural resources and communities is quickly becoming devastating. In the past few months, the sand rush has come to my own rural neighborhood in Dunn County, Wisconsin, which is about an hour east of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Like many residents in Dunn County, I’m concerned about the speed and intensity with which frac-sand mining interests are moving into our area. The proposals and applications for mines and related infrastructure are coming in so fast (our region has seen dozens just in the past few months), most small towns have been totally overwhelmed. Organizations trying to map and report all the activity literally cannot keep up with the incoming data.

Attend the presentations where these land prospectors and mining-company reps make their case, and you’ll hear a lot of vague reassurances. They say that the traffic, noise, water impacts, air pollution and carcinogenic silica-sand dust “won’t be a problem.” They’ll be “good neighbors,” they say, and leave everything better than it was before. The open-pit mines will eventually be “reclaimed,” they say, and in the meantime, the development will spur job growth and other economic boons.

Those of us who have been researching the industry and looking at similar developments in communities where this activity is underway see plenty of reason to doubt those reassurances. We also question whether this glut of mining-related activity could wind up squelching the kind of economic development that would do our area a lot more good over the long haul.

Those who are deeply invested in this community, who made the effort to move to this area, or who gratefully hung onto the land passed on to them by their parents or grandparents, did so primarily for one reason: because this was a beautiful, peaceful, fertile place where they wanted to make a home, raise a family, have a farm or grow a business.

For decades—generations, in many cases—we’ve all been living and working in this community, paying our taxes, riding out the ups and downs of land values associated with agricultural land. We knew the deal. None of us counted on becoming millionaires. We chose to be here because we loved it, and we had a fairly good sense of what our land might be worth if, for some reason, we ever chose to sell.

Over the past few years, agricultural land prices have been rising. It’s widely predicted that the arable and wooded land in this area will only become more valuable. But now, suddenly, a few landowners are being offered what they see as a better deal—the deal of a lifetime.

Some of them want to sell their land to prospectors and mining moguls who are happy to pay unprecedented prices because they know they’ll turn around and profit even more wildly off the spoils. At least while the hydrofracking industry remains hot. Just long enough for them to make their millions or billions, anyway, and then they’ll be gone.

And what about the rest of us? Based on the experiences of other communities where this type of mining-related development has taken place—places like Maiden Rock and Town of Dovre—we know that a few property owners’ potential windfalls will likely come at the expense of virtually everybody else in the community.

The windfalls will come at the expense of our property values, our quality of life, the future we counted on enjoying here with our kids and grandkids. It may come at the expense of our air, water, health, sleep, peace and quiet—things that can’t be fixed or replaced, losses nobody can or will compensate us for.

The proposed mining-related developments, whether open-pit sand mines, processing plants or transload facilities and rail spurs, would radically change a great deal of what we all hold dear.

Imagine being confronted with huge, noisy industrial zones right in the midst of the place most of us love for its peace and quiet. Imagine the possibility of 24/7 noise, traffic, dust, air pollution, light-pollution and a visual blight on the horizon we look out on every day.

Already, as close as Downing, Bloomer, New Auburn and Cooks Valley, WI, we’re losing the very farm fields and wooded hills that define our landscape. The land itself is being ground up and shipped away, only to become toxic, radioactive waste somewhere else. With an endless stream of trucks and trains rattling both their homes and their nerves, many of those who can afford to leave are already making plans to do so.

What will all this do to our residential tax base? What impact will it have on businesses and agricultural enterprises that might have otherwise invested here? What affect will it have on tourism, on hunting and fishing? On whether our children choose to settle in this area or move away?

Today, sand-industry prospectors are proposing to construct a big transload facility and rail spur on top of nearly two hundred acres of prime agricultural land just north of Hwy 12 in the Town of Menomonie, WI. Their hauling route would send hundreds of heavy, noisy trucks (up to a truck every minute or two) straight through residential communities, bombarding them with non–stop noise, diesel fumes and vibrations 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That’s alarming on its own, but remember the rail spur being proposed would also become an integral part of a whole network of industrial sand-mining activity proposed for all around that same area, and throughout our region. It would become a magnet for more and bigger mines, and thus more trucks, and more local liabilities.

That rail spur is the foot in the door with a thousand feet tromping up fast right behind it. If we allow that door to open, our neighborhood and community will never be the same. Our landscape—including the hills and valleys that took 400 million years to form and that are now an integral part of our watershed—will become a patchwork of open sand pit mines.

Over the course of a couple of decades, a few people will get very rich. But the rest of us will suffer losses we never even contemplated as possible.

Meanwhile, our tax burdens will likely increase, because the mines pay very little of the way of property taxes, and most of the bills—for things like accelerated damage to county and state roadways; legal, consulting and government staffing costs; regulatory monitoring and more—will be passed on to local residents in the form of higher state income and property tax bills.

And when the sand is gone, when the mining activity moves out, what will be left of this place? Some big empty rail yards, a pockmarked series of “reclaimed” sites no longer suitable for farming, and a bunch of homes nobody wants to live in any more? A post-mining wasteland and an even more depressed economy? That’s what’s happened in countless other mine-riddled communities.

The only upside most of us can see in this scenario is the potential of some new jobs. But in most cases, there winds up being fewer local jobs created than promised, and they only last as long as the mines do—a few years, perhaps or a few decades at most.

The real question is how desperately do we want jobs that come at such a high and permanent expense to our entire populace? Do we really want to see our relatives and neighbors employed in tasks that actively destroy the things we care about most? Do we want them employed by an industry whose disruptive activities and demonstrated negative impacts will drive away far more beneficial, sustainable economic-development initiatives?

This is the equivalent of killing the goose to get the golden eggs. It’s like selling off our own body’s essential organs to make a quick buck. In short, it is not a good bargain.

There are better ways. Ways to create sustainable jobs that improve our community over the long term, rather than degrading it. Ways to build businesses that respect our natural landscape rather than undermining it. Ways to fuel economic engines that improve our property values, tax base and quality of life rather than eroding them. Ways to encourage industries that provide life-enhancing products and services, and that develop renewable resources rather than shipping our natural resources out of state.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a promising uptick in businesses that make sense for this area, from Community Supported Agriculture operations, microbreweries, hops farms and artisanal food producers to sustainable lumber businesses and renewable-energy equipment manufacturers.

We need to be focused on investigating and developing those sorts of smart, sustainable, future-focused businesses, rather than reactively pandering to a dead-end industry that requires sacrificing the things that make us want to live here in the first place.

This is an agricultural and ag-residential community. Intensive, industrial mining-related activities are clearly not compatible land uses within the vast majority of our community. And for the most part, our current zoning and comprehensive planning policies reflect that reality. As residents, we need to insist these protections are wielded properly and strengthened appropriately for the modern-day sand rush we are experiencing now.

It’s understandable that landowners approached by these mining prospectors are tempted to sell or lease their land. But that does not necessarily give them the legal or ethical right to do so.

I ask our local officials to remember their primary responsibility in protecting the health and welfare of this whole community. They can do this by upholding our zoning and embracing strong ordinances, by standing up for our farms and our families, and by saying “no” to ill-fated, shortsighted mining developments so that we can all say “yes” to a more promising future.

Video courtesy of:  Jim Tittle, Nice Pictures, thepriceofsand.com

--------

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Dunn County News, April 22, 2012.

Pilar Gerasimo grew up on a family farm near Menomonie, Wisc. and moved back to the area several years ago with her husband, Zack. A health journalist by trade, she recently served two terms as Chairperson for the Town of Lucas in Dunn County. She is a member of the “Save Our Knapp Hills” Alliance, a citizens group researching and responding to frac-sand mining activity in the region. For more information, visit “Save Our Knapp Hills” Alliance at Facebook page or email saveknapphillsalliance@gmail.com.

 

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Energy
Mackinac Bridge from Straits of Mackinac. Gregory Varnum / Wikimedia Commons

Michigan Gov. Signs Bill to Keep Line 5 Pipeline Flowing

Michigan's outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation on Wednesday that creates a new government authority to oversee a proposed oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac to effectively allow Canadian oil to keep flowing through the Great Lakes.

The controversial tunnel will encase a replacement segment for Enbridge Energy's aging Line 5 pipelines that run along the bottom of the Straits, a narrow waterway that connects Lakes Huron and Michigan.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
The illegal La Pampa gold mine, seen here in 2017, has devastated the Peruvian Amazon and spread poisonous mercury. Planet Labs

Unprecedented New Map Unveils Illegal Mining Destroying Amazon

A first-of-its-kind map has unveiled widespread environmental damage and contamination of the Amazon rainforest caused by the rise illegal mining.

The survey, released Monday by the Amazon Socio-Environmental Geo-Referenced Information Project (RAISG), identifies at least 2,312 sites and 245 areas of prospecting or extraction of minerals such as gold, diamonds and coltan in six Amazonian countries—Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. It also identified 30 rivers affected by mining and related activities.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Mako sharks killed at the South Jersey Shark Tournament in June 2017. Lewis Pugh

Shark Fishing Tournaments Devalue Ocean Wildlife and Harm Marine Conservation Efforts

By Rick Stafford

Just over three years ago, I was clinging to a rock in 20 meters of water, trying to stop the current from pulling me out to sea. I peered out into the gloom of the Pacific. Suddenly, three big dark shapes came into view, moving in a jerky, yet somehow smooth and majestic manner. I looked directly into the left eyes of hammerhead sharks as they swam past, maybe 10 meters from me. I could see the gill slits, the brown skin. But most of all, what struck me was just how big these animals are—far from the biggest sharks in the seas, but incredibly powerfully built and solid. These are truly magnificent creatures.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Sen. Joe Manchin and United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts held a press conference on Oct. 3, 2017. Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call

Coal-Friendly Manchin Named Top Dem on Senate Energy Panel

After weeks of discord over the potential appointment, Sen. Joe Manchin, the pro-coal Democrat of West Virginia, was named the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Sen. Chuck Schumer announced Tuesday.

Many Democrats and environmental groups were adamantly opposed to Manchin serving as the top Democrat on the committee that oversees policies on climate change, public lands and fossil fuel production.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Insights/Opinion
Hikers on the Mt. Hollywood Trail in Griffin Park, Calif. while a brush fire burned in the Angeles National Forest on Aug. 26, 2009. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Major Health Study Shows Benefits of Combating Climate Change

During the holiday season, people often drink toasts to health. There's something more we can do to ensure that we and others will enjoy good health now and into the future: combat climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Employees of Rural Renewable Energy Alliance working together with students and faculty of Leech Lake Tribal Collage to construct solar panels, 2017. Ryan James White

A Tribe in Northern Minnesota Shows the Country How to Do Community Solar

By Susan Cosier

Last summer on a reservation in northern Minnesota, students from Leech Lake Tribal College earned their solar installation licenses while they dug, drilled and connected five photovoltaic arrays. The panels shine blue on the plain, reflecting the sky as they generate roughly 235 megawatts of electricity a year, enough to help 100 families pay their energy bills. This is community solar in action.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
Arches National Park. Chris Dodds / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Trump Auctions Off 150,000 Acres of Public Lands for Fracking Near Utah National Parks

On Tuesday the Trump administration offered more than 150,000 acres of public lands for fossil-fuel extraction near some of Utah's most iconic landscapes, including Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
The Vanderford glacier in East Antarctica is one of four that is beginning to melt, according to NASA. Angela Wylie / Fairfax Media / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Melting Discovered in East Antarctic Region Holding Ice 'Equivalent to Four Greenlands'

Ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica have been melting at alarming rates in recent years, but at least the glaciers of East Antarctica were believed to be relatively stable. Until now. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists have discovered that glaciers covering one-eighth of Antarctica's eastern coast have lost ice in the past 10 years. If the region keeps melting, it has enough ice in its drainage basins to add 28 meters (approximately 92 feet) to global sea level rise, BBC News reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!