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Mining sand for fracking causes friction in Wisconsin

Oil and gas firms pay plenty to mine sand in western Wisconsin. Some farmers welcome the cash. Others fear health risks.

November 19, 2012|By Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times
  • Western Wisconsin dairy farmer Lary Boese used income from sand mining on his land to build a new barn, seen in the background in a space left by a mine excavation.
Western Wisconsin dairy farmer Lary Boese used income from sand mining… (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune )

CHIPPEWA COUNTY, Wis. — Where County Highway A crests a knoll, Ken Schmitt pulls up to the edge of a farm and idles the car. Above a cornfield yellowed and brittle from a killing frost is a 100-foot hill with a wide section cut away, revealing bands of stone, clay and sand neat as a layer cake.

In time, 800 acres of farmland will be mined to feed an energy boom sweeping the United States.

No one is drilling for oil or gas amid the gently rolling farmland and wooded ridges of western Wisconsin. But the same battles over jobs, public health and the environment that have erupted in Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado as part of the latest energy wave now echo through the small towns of the upper Midwest.

Here the particular types of sand vital to the controversial production technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, lie just beneath the surface. Ground zero for industrial sand mining is western Wisconsin, in counties like Trempealeau, Buffalo and Chippewa. At least 60 industrial sand mines are functioning or in the permit process in the area, up from five in 2010.

The rapid expansion of sand mining through the quiet of western Wisconsin has raised fears among some residents and hope in others, often pitting neighbors against one another, just as fracking has done elsewhere.

To get to the sand, companies must blast and strip-mine fields and ridges. Their trucks ply the two-lane country roads nonstop to haul the sand to processing plants and railheads, where it is shipped to far-flung oil and gas fields. Residents worry that when strong winds lift the fine, washed sand from outdoor piles, the dust could lead to respiratory problems.

"People here say this is an issue of property rights, that they can do what they want with their land," said Schmitt, a cattle farmer and anti-mining activist from the town of Howard. "But individual rights end when you start affecting others' health and welfare."

Still, those who lease their land get royalties. Locals work at the mines and drive the trucks. When the companies build plants that wash, sift and dry the sand, they pay tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes. A trade-off is needed, mining's supporters say, if Wisconsin wants jobs and the country wants cheap energy.

"I liked the land the way it was before, but the country itself has to be more efficient one way or the other in the future," said Jeff Sikora, who leased 50 acres of his land to EOG Resources, a Houston-based oil, gas and mining company. "Everyone wants the country to be more self-sufficient, but no one wants the effects of it. We can't have our cake and eat it too."

High-volume hydraulic fracturing involves shooting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to crack shale formations and unlock oil and gas. The sand props open the fissures, and hydrocarbons flow through the porous sand up the well. The upper Midwest's round, hard sand makes it ideal for fracking, and a fracked well could use anywhere from 2 million to 5 million pounds of sand.

Sand formations sought by the oil and gas industry run under western Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois. Wisconsin was built on mining, mainly lead and iron, but sand mines were usually small and supplied local construction. Now, the sand mining boom has attracted oil and gas companies like EOG and Chesapeake Energy, local large landowners and entrepreneurs and hedge funds like Wexford Capital of Greenwich, Conn.

On a cold overcast morning, Rich Budinger, regional manager of the Fairmount Minerals mine in Menomonie, drives to the base of a ridge being mined. Budinger points out the layer of sand exposed on the mined ridge, about 15 feet down from the top. He explains that a machine atop the ridge drills holes into it, which are then packed with explosives. The ridge is blasted once or twice a week, Budinger said, slicing off a section of the hill that falls into in a pile.

After a site has been mined, the area has to be reclaimed according to the landowner's directives. Near the entrance to the plant, a tract has been replanted with native grasses and pine, which the landowner hopes to turn into a Christmas tree farm.

The earth blasted from the ridge is taken to a facility on site where it is washed and sifted to extract the sand. Piles of washed sand stand at the site, fine as brown sugar. Sprinklers loom over the piles to keep down dust when the wind picks up.

"Dust blowing off the property is my main concern," Budinger said. "It's not uncommon to get 30- or 40-mph winds when one of those fronts blows in. We even stop mining on some of those days to control the dust."

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