July 24, 2012
“The only issue western Wisconsin people care about are sand mines,” the woman told me. “They love them or they hate them.”
At fairs and festivals across western Wisconsin I frequently hear about mining of sand from the hills of the driftless area. The rolling hills along the Mississippi River contain 500 million year old sand with the perfect hardness and shape for hydraulic fracture mining.
Every day hundreds of rail cars leave for North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas filled with bluff country sand worth about $20,000 a rail car at the drilling site. Industry experts say the only thing limiting the exodus of Wisconsin sand is the availability of rail cars.
Western Wisconsin is ground zero for ‘frac sand’. The number of western Wisconsin mines grew by five times since last summer; the number of combined mines and processing plants quadrupled. But the 87 mines operating or under construction is just the beginning.
Most of the sand mines are open-pit. Some use ‘pillar mining’ – underground mining similar to coal mining.
Last year Wisconsin lawmakers debated iron ore mining, but not a single hearing was scheduled by the Republican controlled legislature on sand mining. I advanced three proposals including a comprehensive review of sand mining through a bipartisan Legislative Council Study Committee. I crafted two bills requiring notification of citizens when sand mine companies were going to begin operations in their neighborhoods. All proposals were rejected without a single public hearing.
State law regulates 1000 acre sand mines like small gravel pits. The section of law relating to ‘nonmetallic’ mining (sand mining) only requires a plan for reclaiming the land. Air and water quality, considered in different sections of law, are loosely interpreted to eliminate many common sense measures, such as air monitoring near the edge of the mine.
Many see jobs coming to rural areas as justification for increased traffic and neighbors’ inconvenience. But critics are concerned about air and water quality, devaluing of nearby property, noise and light nuisances and damage to rural roads.
The explosion of sand mines often pits one business owner against another. Some farmers sold land at 10 times its former value, while others lost property value when a sand mine opened next door. Regional land owners are concerned a large number of high capacity wells will draw down ground water for neighboring farms and rural residents.
I spoke with several tourism-related business owners in Pepin County who joined forces to stop a sand transfer facility just south of the river town of Stockholm.
On Lake Pepin’s shores the proposed sand transfer facility would be used to load sand from mines up and down the Mississippi. Business owners argue the increased traffic would aggravate already stressed roads. Tourism leaders say truck traffic and heavy industry would be incompatible with the Great River Road. A 700’ Scenic Easement protects land near the Great River Road.
Visitors come to see the site of the French Fort St. Antoine built by Nicholas Perrot on the shores of Lake Pepin in 1686. The Pepin Lake area is part of the Wisconsin’s Great River Road and recently named “the Prettiest Drive in America” by Huffington Post.
Local residents complain it is hard to find information about proposed mines. One woman told me she counted 13 public hearings in Trempealeau County over the past several weeks.
“People do not understand the immensity of what happening to our local community,” said an Ettrick Township resident. “Nor do they realize what happens to the sand when it leaves here. What is happening to those the people of those communities?”
Without state action to slow development of sand mines, local officials make decisions on a case-by-case basis about the location of sand mine and rules mines must follow. Local leaders can’t monitor the mines once agreements are reached and residents worry about the ability of local government to enforce rules at mines.
If you are interested in learning more about sand mines and their impact on western Wisconsin, let me know. I will be glad to send you my periodic sand mine update newsletter.