Bus trip to land of frac-sand mining
provides insight to 'new' industry
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 2:57 AM
It has often been said that seeing is believing.
And a bus trip to the land of frac-sand mining in Chippewa County, Wis. last week made me a believer ... a believer in the fact that before Winneshiek County's 18-month moratorium expires, some due diligence and difficult decisions will have to be made.
"You don't really know what it looks like until you see it," said Ken Schmitt, our tour guide for the day.
Schmitt is a cattle farmer-turned-fractivist who frequently volunteers to guide groups of any size to share the history of the frac-sand mining boom in his area and how mining continues to impact the people who live there.
More than 50 people from Northeast Iowa, Southeast Minnesota and Western Wisconsin participated in the tour, organized by the Allamakee County Protectors.
This spring, both Allamakee and Winneshiek counties imposed 18-month moratoriums on frac-sand mining, following local concerns about its effects on the landscape, air and water quality and infrastructure.
Frac sand vs. fracking
Frac sand is being mined for use in the process of "fracking," short for hydraulic fracturing, an extreme extraction process used to release petroleum, natural gas (including shale gas, tight gas and coal seam gas) from tightly compressed bedrock formations. Fractures are created after a hole is drilled into reservoir rock formations deep below the earth's surface.
Frac sand, or silica sand, is quartz sand of a uniform size and shape that is suspended in a proprietary mixture of chemicals and injected into the holes under high pressure, as much as 25,000 pounds per square inch. The chemical and sand slurry then enlarges and props open existing fractures, simultaneously creating even more fractures, allowing the oil or gas to be forced upward out of the well.
Frac-sand mining has recently come under the scrutiny of activists who also oppose the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing for many of the same reasons - adverse health effects, contamination of wells and the water table, destruction of fragile environments and devaluation of property, to name a few.
As the tour bus headed north from La Crosse into Trempealeau County, we had a close-up view of the frequent sand-truck traffic these narrow, country roads have to endure.
"This road was just redone, and it's already getting torn up again," said a passenger from Wisconsin, referring to Highway 93.
Once I started keeping track, I saw at least nine sand trucks pass the bus in about 15 minutes.
"In Chippewa County, sometimes these mines haul out 500 loads a day," said Schmitt.
According to Schmitt, when a road is damaged by heavy sand-truck traffic, Wisconsin counties can either charge the sand company a tax or require them to pay for the damages.
In Wisconsin, companies can be taxed if their use of a specific road is deemed "above normal and historic use." In Minnesota, truck traffic can be taxed by tons of sand hauled; however, Iowa Code has no provisions for municipalities to impose such a tax, leaving the burden of replacing the infrastructure on the county's taxpayers.
In addition to truck traffic, Schmitt said during the peak mining season, the largest Enron Oil and Gas sand-washing plant in the county sends out 110 railroad cars of sand every three days.
"The plant processes 2.6 million tons of sand a year. Each of those rail cars holds four semi-loads worth of sand," said Schmitt, who added much of the sand is shipped to Texas.
As we continued on our journey, there were a few locations where we had to strain to see the mines, which were strategically hidden behind manmade berms and rows of trees.
But in most cases, the devastation of the land was obvious ... scenic bluffs transformed into gaping pits. I saw many on the bus who appeared visibly upset by the scene.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting recently polled the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and found job creation estimates for all of the mines in Wisconsin (around 110) at about 2,780 jobs.
Schmitt said while locally he thinks some jobs have been created, they have primarily been filled by people from outside the area with a particular expertise.
"It might result in a little job creation, but it also costs the communities," said Schmitt.
Schmitt said after Enron built one of its towering sand-washing plants, the community of Chippewa Falls had to spend $1 million on a new ladder firetruck to reach the top of the plant in case of a fire.
During our lunch stop in Bloomer, Wis., I took the opportunity to visit with Lee and Mona (last name omitted intentionally), a couple from the area.
I asked them what their take was on the number of people in their community who are for and against the mines.
"I think when things started out, it was about 50/50," said Lee.
"But those numbers are shifting more against the mining, as the jobs people imagined would come here are not materializing," he said.
Mona, who works in real estate, said there is a disproportionate amount of license plates from Missouri and Alabama in the area.
"And they all want to rent. No one wants to buy anything here," she said.
Schmitt also said he has heard of declining property values.
"The houses for sale are not moving. And you're going to take quite a hit if your property is near a mine or on a haul route," said Schmitt.
Lee said he thinks the sand industry has been hardest on existing companies who employ truck drivers.
"Many firms have lost their truck drivers to these sand plants. So you can't really call it job creation. It's more of a re-shifting of the workforce," he said.
Lee and Mona said they've both been disgusted at "what an eyesore" the mines have become.
"It's aesthetically not pleasant," said Lee.
He added one of the reasons many people have not voiced opposition to the mines is the companies are suddenly donating to organizations like emergency management and the schools.
"It's like they're buying their way in," said Lee.
After I returned, I called and spoke with Charlie Walker, president/CEO of the Chippewa County Development Corporation.
Walker had nothing but positive things to say about the economic impact the frac-sand mining boom in his county has produced. In his opinion, 80 percent of the population is in favor of frac-sand mining and only 20 percent is against it.
"Six years ago, Chippewa County was facing closure of the Northern railroad corridor. Chippewa and Barron counties' economic development offices worked together to prevent that. We were looking at 1,200 jobs that would be at risk if that rail left," said Walker.
Walker said the two counties aggressively worked to form a regional alliance to save the rail, which served as a shipping vehicle for large employers, such as Jennie-O Turkey.
"We had a meeting with the rail folks, and then we looked at what assets we had, which were rail and sand," he said.
"We had a company from Canada come in, and once the quality of our sand was tested for oil and gas, they realized it's a Cadillac sand --- a high-quality product."
Williams said sand-mining is not a new industry.
"The problem is when you put the word 'frac' in front of it, it puts the emotion into it," he said.
Williams said when the sand mines started coming in they (Chippewa and Barron counties) did not set any sort of moratorium.
"We understand the controversy is being driven by outside environmental forces ... We're a capitalist society. Our county set the rules, and it has been extremely positive."
Williams said due to the increased use of the rail and partial investment by the mining companies, $33 million in rail improvements have been implemented. He said that benefits all of the commerce in the area.
He added regionally about 400 locals work for the mines, and Chippewa Sand Transport, the area's main sand-trucking company, employs 125 people.
"These people all receive $17.50 an hour plus benefits plus safety bonuses," he said.
Williams said he knows the controversy with frac-sand mining is mostly rooted in the end result, that the sand is used for fracking.
"In the national debate (about fracking), we are just one ingredient. I understand the emotional argument, but from a Chippewa County perspective, we all thought it was going to be doomsday. But once it was done, it's not as bad as we thought," he said.
"Until we can get our alternative energies, such as wind and solar, up to speed, this is one way for us to wean ourselves off foreign oil."
Bill Greendeer, a member of the Ho Chunk Nation who came on the tour, lives on an organic farm near LaFarge, Wis.
Greendeer said on his way to a sacred medicine feast, he recently passed the area in Tomah where he grew up.
"The mines have completely torn up the area where I used to play in the woods. Where I saw wolves and mountain lions there are now just piles of sand. It made me feel sick," he said.
Greendeer said he is disgusted with the fact many people seem to be depending on the government to regulate the mining operations.
"Nobody is talking to the Indians. We haven't trusted the government for years," he said.
Greendeer said his tribe has been collaborating with the Menominee, Chippewa, Pottawattamie, Sauk and Fox tribes to receive some backing to further investigate the effects of mining.
"That land is sacred. And I'm worried about air and water quality," he said.
Liz Rog of Decorah said she took the bus trip because she wanted to see the devastation firsthand.
"So many of us here in Northeast Iowa are working hard to prevent the harms to air, water, land and infrastructure that are inherent in frac-sand mining. We know that just across the river is a living, tragic example of what this kind of industrial mining does to real people and their places. I knew it would be heartbreaking to see this level of destruction in person - and indeed I shed tears on this trip."
Amy Weldon, a professor of English at Luther College, said, "I knew intellectually how bad frac-sand mining is for the environment and for our rural economies and communities, and I've been opposed to it for those reasons from the beginning. But seeing those mining and processing sites -- in some incredibly beautiful farmland -- brought that reality home to me emotionally, too."
Joel Shoemaker of Lansing added, "I've always thought the 'not in my backyard' phenomenon was an interesting one. Because it's always in somebody's backyard," he said.
The Allamakee County Protectors will be offering a second bus trip to Chippewa County Saturday, Oct. 5.
For more information, visit allamakeecountyprotectors.org.