Wisconsin sand sparks a 'gold' rush

10:00 PM, Sep 22, 2011   |    comments
  • Photo courtesy MPR/Aex Kolyer
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CHIPPEWA COUNTY, Wis. - Chippewa County's rolling landscape has an ocean-like quality with wave after wave of sand-topped hills, and those hilltops are attracting a different wave of so-called "frac" sand miners in a modern-day gold rush.

The sand is indeed as good as gold to the oil and gas industry, and since 2008 Chippewa County has permitted five mines with more waiting in line. While the mines bring jobs to Wisconsin, some residents worry about sand mining's impact.

"I am sounding an alarm," says Heather Andersen while sitting on her deck overlooking the rolling hills.

Andersen, who lives a couple miles from one mine, worries about the landscape. She's also a member of Concerned Chippewa Citizens, which has been a vocal opponent of sand mining.

"We started out with the idea that we could stop all of this," says Pat Popple, president of Concerned Chippewa Citizens.

With approval of several mines, Popple's group now tries to educate the public. She worries about air and water; Popple also joins Andersen in her concern for the land.

"This whole thing has been like an octopus. It's very, very difficult to get a handle on all the facets of this," Popple says.

However, Andersen believes she has a handle on the landscape. "It's going to change; and it might not change right here in the backyard, but it's going to change throughout this area," predicts Andersen.

Sand mining already changing land

Driving across the countryside in his pickup, Chippewa County Conservationist Dan Masterpole can already see changes.

"They're preparing those hills," he notes.

Preparing is just the beginning. "They will be removing trees and systematically mining some of the ridges," says Masterpole.

Chippewa County is one of 15 Wisconsin counties with frac-sand mines.  Dr. Bruce Brown, senior geologist with Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey carries a carload of bedrock maps around the state. He notes parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota offer frac-sand deposits near the surface - as is the case in Chippewa County.

Standing in front of a Chippewa County mine, Brown notes, "That's what makes this a desirable area to mine is that you can do it open-pit surface, just like we see behind us - very much like you do a gravel pit or a stone quarry."

Texas sand miners in Wisconsin

Just northwest of Chippewa Falls in one of Wisconsin's rural partitions - the town of Auburn - Texas-based Superior Silica Sands is leasing hundreds of acres for mining.

President Richard Shearer says Wisconsin sand is indeed the attraction.

"Better than most any other place in the country, basically," Shearer says.

Better, thanks to two crucial qualities: round and strong. Such sand is just what the oil and gas industry is seeking.

"We'll ship to the service companies that actually do the drilling out in the field for the companies that a lot of your audience knows, the gas companies, the Exxon Mobils of the world," says Shearer.

Superior Silica Sand's potential customers can be found from North Dakota to Texas and Pennsylvania to California. The sand is helping fuel a domestic energy boom that uses a method call "fracking." Horizontal drillers fracture shale and then prop it open with the strong, round "frac" sand so oil and natural gas can flow.

For Shearer, mining Wisconsin sand is not a short-term proposition. "We expect to be here for 50 years or more. The leases that we have on the mine are for 25 years; and with the reserves that are in the area, we expect to be here indefinitely. That's not unusual."

Sand mining regulations

When opening a mine, companies cannot just start digging; and the county cannot just say no.

"We cannot regulate whether a mine should exist at a given location," notes Masterpole.

In fact, Masterpole says if miners meet state landscape restoration and water standards, the county must issue a permit (see Wisconsin sand mining laws). Given that permit, operational issues such as hours and noise are left to the towns; and Chippewa County's mining towns do not have zoning.

Masterpole says, "Historically, there's been a reluctance in some of the rural towns to establish local land-use regulations - particularly zoning."

Dr. Brown adds, "You'll hear these guys say, 'Well, we don't want zoning. We don't want anybody telling us what we gotta do. We want our freedom out here.' And then all of a sudden, a guy comes in and says, 'I want to open a 500-acre sand mine.' And now they're saying, 'Well who's gonna protect?'"

One effort to protect

One individual is out to offer one measure of protection in another area of concern.  

Dr. Crispin Pierce is testing air around one of the sand operations. He's looking for minute silica particles that can damage the lung.

Pierce says, "We're really not sure about how much is being generated, but monitoring and mandatory monitoring in my estimation is the best way to protect the public."

The Wisconsin DNR is studying airborne silica, and Pierce intends to share his findings with the agency.

Masterpole believes, "If done properly, we can protect both the environment and achieve some type of economic gain in the area."

Mines and neighbors living together

Back at Superior Silica Sands, Shearer says, "One of the things here is that mining is not a dirty word."

He says the company is adding jobs, not air and water problems. He says the hills will be restored as rolling farmland.

"If there are issues that are real, we're willing to address them; and we've said that upfront."

Andersen says, "They're doing what they think they need to do, but I'm there to keep them honest."

She intends to watch the mines and the view.

"The hills are gone. It's not gonna be the same. The bluffs are gone. The sand is gone."

(Copyright 2011 by KARE 11. All Rights Reserved.)

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