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Northern Wisconsin sand mining boom includes new jobs, new problems

Northern Wisconsin sand mining boom includes new jobs, new problems

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A controversial natural gas mining technique called "fracking" is creating a boom in Wisconsin sand mines with more than 20 new mines proposed, including some as large as 500 acres or more.

While the mines bring jobs, they also bring dust, traffic and other problems the state Department of Natural Resources and local governments aren't prepared to deal with, residents and government officials said at a recent conference on "frac sands."

"The state is woefully unprepared for this," said state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma. "We're regulating sand mines like we regulate gravel pits. There is a big difference between a one-acre gravel pit and a 900-acre sand mine."

While sand companies and others tout the economic benefits of the mines, the boom has left some families and the rural towns in which they live dealing with changed landscapes, blowing silica dust, around-the-clock noise and glaring lights, heavy truck traffic and water pollution.

Jamie Gregar loves staring into the distant countryside from her home in the hills near Tunnel City in Monroe County. The vistas, she said, are a big part of the reason she and her husband bought the home last year and looked forward to raising their three young children on what seemed to be astorybook slice of Wisconsin's landscape.

Recently, the Gregars discovered a silica sand mining company, Unimin, purchased 1,000 acres around their subdivision and has begun building a large sand mine that will dramatically change their bucolic view.

"The view from our house is gorgeous," Gregar said. "All wooded with rolling hills. And it's perfectly quiet. In the summer evening when you sit outside, you can hear the neighbors a mile away. Now it's all going to be gone."

Sand rush in state

The sand rush in Wisconsin is caused primarily by two things. One is the increasing use of a natural gas mining technology called hydraulic fracturing, in which deep wells are sunk in shale and a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under pressure into the rock, fracturing it and freeing the gas. The sand granules, because they are round and made of hard quartz, then keep the fissures open and the gas flowing.

Also, Wisconsin is uniquely positioned to be one of the nation's major providers of frac sand because of its geology. A thick band of sand was deposited by an ancient ocean 500 million years ago in a broad swath from the northwestern corner of the state down through central Wisconsin and into the southern and southwestern parts of the state. The sand is easy to reach and can be scraped from the Earth in open pit mines.

Hotspots for sand mines have been mostly in west central Wisconsin such as Chippewa, La Crosse and Monroe counties. But recently, with demand for the sand at an all-time high, mining companies have been making inquiries in southern counties such as Columbia and Crawford.

According to Tom Woletz, who works on sand mining regulation for the DNR, Wisconsin has about 60 sand mining operations and 32 processing plants where the mined sand is washed and sometimes coated with resin to make it more durable. Woletz said the agency's latest survey showed at least 20 new mines have been proposed, a number he said likely is higher because of the rush to build new operations.

Economic boost

The burgeoning industry has brought more jobs and an economic boost to Wisconsin, according to Jay Alston, the chief executive officer of Hi-Crush Proppants, one of the nation's major sand mining companies and a big player in the industry in Wisconsin.

Alston said the company's Wyeville mining operation near Tomah employs 43 workers and wages average $18 an hour. He estimated the boost to the local economy from wage earners alone at the mine to be more than $100,000 a year. Most mining operations in the state are similar, he added, with the number of workers probably averaging near 30 per mine.

"It is a substantial impact," Alston said. "This should be good for Wisconsin's economy."

Caught off guard

The state Department of Natural Resources has been caught somewhat off guard by sand mining companies looking to build new mines and processing plants or expand existing operations. For example, while the agency can regulate silica dust particles — which have been linked in studies to cancer in occupational settings — it's severely hampered in its oversight of dust at mine sites by a dramatically downsized staff, according to William Baumann, who is in charge of air standard compliance at the DNR.

"We have not very frequently been inspecting these sources," Baumann said. He said the agency has the equivalent of two full-time positions statewide to deal with permitting and inspection of silica sand mines. He added that, because of the increasing number of permit applications, the agency is studying how to better address the issue. 

Paul Kent, a Madison lawyer with Stafford Rosenbaum who has represented local governments on issues related to sand mining, said counties and towns on the soundest footing are those with zoning laws that require companies to take steps such as controlling dust, paying for repair of roads, limiting operating hours and light and noise effects, and preventing mining too close to residential areas.

"If you don't have the tools, such as local zoning ordinances, chances are you're not going to have much of a discussion with a company," Kent told local officials attending a sand mining conference earlier this month in Spring Green. Several counties with spotty zoning sent officials to that conference, including Grant County with 14 of its 31 towns unzoned and Crawford County where 11 towns have no zoning. 

Kent said local governments without zoning have other options, including negotiating development agreements with mining companies. 

But the effectiveness of the negotiated agreements frequently depends on whether a town has skilled negotiators who can strike a deal that provides adequate protections, something that often isn't the case in rural towns, Vinehout said.

The Gregars, for example, live in the town of Greenfield in Monroe County, and Jamie Gregar fears an agreement struck between the town and Unimin, the company building a mine next to her home, does not provide enough protection. 

Drew Bradley, a spokesman for Unimin, said the town of Greenfield agreement actually requires the company to go beyond state regulations for controlling and monitoring dust and air pollution. 

Some, however, are proposing the state change the law so local governments have more power in dealing with mining companies.

Vinehout said she is looking at possible changes in state laws that would do everything from increase public notice requirements for companies and local governments that are considering construction of sand mines to strengthening local zoning powers.

"We just have a huge difference in the ability of local officials to deal with these situations," Vinehout said. "What there has to be is a level playing field."


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