Frac sand mining wreaking havoc in western Wisconsin, critics say

The U.S. oil and gas industry remains in a temporary funk, lowering the demand for frac sand produced in western Wisconsin. Just last month, Superior Silica Sands and Unimin announced they would lay off 139 employees. And it’s not the only company that’s laying off workers.

But that doesn’t mean the controversial frac sand mines — which many blame for health and well water quality problems — are going away.

Far from it, said Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates said Wednesday night at a Union South gathering on the UW-Madison campus.

Speaking at meeting sponsored by Wisconsin Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology, Wright predicted demand would rebound. She also said the current slump in frac sand mining has brought about new problems for residents who live near inactive mines because companies have abandoned the sites and are no longer watering huge sand piles to control silica dust.

Wright noted two-thirds of the sand that is used in the hydraulic fracturing method of extracting oil and gas in the United States comes from western Wisconsin — which has led some in the industry to call the region the “Saudi Arabia of Sand.”

Frac sand mining had exploded in recent years, with around 80 mines now operating in the western part of the state. At the same time, contributions to Wisconsin politicians have risen dramatically — which Wright said has resulted in lax oversight of frac sand mines by the state Department of Natural Resources.

“There are many good people in the DNR, but they are not being allowed to do their jobs because of special-interest influence,” Wright said.

To deal with pollution from the mines, she said western Wisconsin counties and municipalities have enacted their own rules. But she said those regulations could be overturned if legislation authored by Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst is successful in reducing local control. Tiffany has also pushed to cut funding for scientific research at the DNR and to increase logging on thousands of additional acres of state forest.

Wright said the DNR has known for more than two years that some frac sand mines leach heavy metals into waterways, but has only recently announced that it will study the problem. She also criticized the agency for accepting industry reports instead of doing its own reviews.

She lauded residents of Trempealeau and other counties in the western part of the state who have challenged mining companies and the DNR, in some cases filing suit in local courts.

“Silica dust is a carcinogen,” Wright said. “Some people’s screens have become completely clogged because of that dust from those mines. But the DNR won’t do anything because they are so tied up with the industry.

“And now, some legislators want to deregulate what is already an under-regulated industry,” she said.

Ted Auch, the Great Lakes program coordinator with the Pennsylvania FracTracker Alliance, said mining companies have denuded thousands of acres western Wisconsin ridge tops to get access to the round and resilient sands coveted by the hydraulic fracking industry.

“You have the ‘honey pot’ of sand in your state,” he said. But Auch warned that because soils are thin in the region, it will be difficult to restore the land to a productive state when the mines are played out. And he said landowners who have been told they will be able to raise corn and soybeans on reclaimed land are being misled.

— By Brian Clark,

Listen to the audio.