When the Hills Are Gone

Thomas W. Pearson on the impact of frac sand mining—in western Wisconsin and beyond.

Bridge Creek Wisconsin Frac Sand Mine
A frac sand mine among farms in Bridge Creek, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Thomas W. Pearson.

In “The End of Country,” journalist Seamus McGraw examined the impact of hydraulic fracturing on rural communities in northeastern Pennsylvania, relating how the influx of money and investment from energy companies provided great economic benefit to some, while pollution and the sudden intrusion of outsiders unnerved others. In the years since, there has been extensive media coverage of fracking and how it has transformed lives—for better or worse—in places where the controversial extraction process has become a mainstay, including Williston, North Dakota (“a sleepy farm town for generations—until the frackers arrived,” writes Blaire Briody in the 2017 book “The New Wild West.”)

Yet outside of select communities that are directly impacted, few people know much of anything about industrial-scale sand mining and its impact on quality of life, despite the fact that sand (used as a proppant) is an essential ingredient in the hydraulic fracturing process. One of the few parts of the country that has been jolted by the growth in so-called frac sand mining is western Wisconsin, which is blessed with an abundance of high quality silica sand. Not unlike northeastern Pennsylvania’s experience with fracking, frac sand mining has brought extraordinary wealth to a lucky few, while disturbing the lives of many others, who fret about the noise pollution, the impact on air and water quality, and harm to Wisconsin’s tourism industry.

In the book “When the Hills Are Gone: Frac Sand Mining and the Struggle for Community” (University of Minnesota Press), University of Wisconsin-Stout professor Thomas W. Pearson conveys how people’s lives have been impacted by the industry. “Wisconsin’s hills are being removed, shipped around the country, and reinserted deep into the earth, once speck of sand at a time,” writes Pearson in the book, noting that the sand is shipped by truck or rail to the likes of Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Dakota, where thousands of tons are injected (along with millions of gallons of water) into fracked wells.

In the following Failure Interview, Pearson discusses the environmental impacts of frac sand mining, the health risks associated with it (including lung cancer and silicosis), as well as the uneven economic impact on communities that host frac sand mines.

What led you to begin researching frac sand mining? 

It was something I stumbled into by accident. When I moved to Menomonie [Wisconsin] and started working at UW-Stout in 2009 I didn’t know anything about frac sand mining or hydraulic fracturing. I heard stories in the local media but didn’t start paying attention to the issue until a frac sand operation was proposed in Menomonie. At that point, I just wanted to learn more about what was going on, and first engaged the issue as a concerned citizen. Having an interest in environmental conflicts and the grassroots response to those kinds of conflicts, I viewed it as a potential way to get involved in a local research project.

Why the wave of sand mining development in western Wisconsin in the past decade or so? 

As I recount in the book, some of the earliest frac sand mines started up in 2006, in direct response to the demand for the use of frac sand in other parts of the country. As fracking increased in Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Dakota, demand for this very particular type of sand—which is used to prop open the fractures in the shale bedrock—skyrocketed. Western Wisconsin just happens to have huge deposits of high quality silica sand that is not only concentrated in abundance but relatively close to the surface and in close proximity to transportation infrastructure.

Around 2009-2011 is when there was this sudden boom of the frac sand industry in western Wisconsin. It caught pretty much everyone off guard. Local towns and local officials knew next to nothing about sand mining. Even though it has a long history in western Wisconsin and there are lots of small quarries, larger scale frac sand mining was new to most people and places. Because the industry was developing so rapidly and introducing new environmental changes and impacting communities in dramatic ways, it sparked significant grassroots opposition. 

Everyone is familiar with fracking. Why is it so easy to overlook the importance that sand plays in fracking? 

That’s what is so fascinating. Sand is one of those unexpected ingredients that is quite essential to the fracking process. And huge quantities of sand are pumped into a single well. We’re talking two- to nine-thousand tons of material. So even though it’s key to the whole process, there has been so much attention focused on extraction [of oil and gas] that it gets overlooked. 

Fracking is an example of an extractive industry that grew very rapidly and introduced a lot of dramatic changes and new conflicts in communities. The focus on drilling sites can distract from the larger system—the commodity chains of various things that are needed in the fracking process, and the transport systems of the fossil fuels themselves. People typically get involved in disputes around frac sand mining because it affects the places they live, then it forces them to think about the bigger picture.  

How large are the sand mining operations in Wisconsin, and how many mines are currently operational? 

The sand mining operations can range from 200 up to 1,000 acres. The active extraction might be along the lines of 20-100 acres but then it will expand as the mining unfolds over a period of years and decades. So comparatively speaking, an individual frac sand mine is not at the scale of a coal mine you might see in West Virginia or Wyoming or some of the metallic mining that has occurred in the upper Midwest.

But you have upwards of a hundred frac sand operations concentrated in a relatively small part of western Wisconsin. In addition to the mines, a frac sand operation can also include a processing facility or a rail spur. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates suggest there are 90-100 active operations right now, whereas ten years ago there were maybe three industrial sand operations.  

What impact has frac sand mining had on Wisconsin communities? Let’s start with the environmental impact, specifically the impact on surface water and groundwater. 

I’m a cultural anthropologist and not an ecologist or hydrologist so I’m not an expert on the specific impacts. But when it comes to water there are a couple main concerns. Frac sand mines utilize a lot of water and require high capacity wells as part of the processing of the sand. Some people have raised concerns about the high demand for water, not only for use in frac sand mining but also for industrial agriculture in the region.  

Another concern is the use of chemicals known as flocculants, which are used in the wash plants [the raw materials must be washed] and processing plants. These chemicals are common within municipal water reclamation treatment facilities but some people have raised concerns about the concentrations used in frac sand mining and the uncertainties surrounding the impact when they are disposed of and buried with mine waste.   

In terms of the health impact on workers and residents who live near frac sand facilities, it seems that fugitive dust and inhaling small particles of crystalline silica are a risk. 

The fugitive dust and silica dust that is generated during the mining process and the transportation and processing of frac sand has been of great concern to many residents and has sparked the most discussion and debate. The sand is almost pure silica sand and the mining and processing generates microscopic particles of dust that is a known health hazard if inhaled. It’s regulated within [the] workplace settings. But there are questions about whether people who live near or adjacent to frac sand operations and are potentially exposed to silica particles in an open air environment are at risk of health problems like lung cancer, silicosis, and other respiratory issues.

The DNR has been reluctant to address this issue in terms of creating new regulations that specifically focus on silica dust in an open air setting. They have insisted that existing air quality regulations are sufficient to address any potential concerns. The industry, of course, has downplayed this as a potential hazard and there are other environmental health experts that aren’t necessarily raising the alarm but are saying there’s not enough research yet to know definitively whether it presents a risk. They have pushed for stricter monitoring. Some of the really fine particles aren’t necessarily monitored at frac sand mines.  

What has been the economic impact of frac sand mining in terms of jobs?

Part of what has made frac sand mining so controversial in Wisconsin is that people do make money off of the industry. There are people working on mine sites and driving trucks. Particularly in the context of the Great Recession, when there was considerable economic anxiety in a lot of rural communities, many people viewed frac sand mining as something that needed to be embraced—that any form of economic development needed to be accommodated and promoted. And people who sold or leased their land [to mining companies] were able to make a lot of money. 

But even in terms of the boom that took place, there were questions raised about the benefits versus the costs. When you are talking about job creation, it’s really hard to measure. Mining is a highly mechanized industry and many of the jobs are in truck driving and transporting the materials. Even when you take the most optimistic job numbers, it raised between two- and five-thousand jobs. That’s significant but quite a small percentage in the big scheme of things.  

Another question is to what extent communities that host mining operations are in a position to capture the economic benefits that are generated. Do the people who work in the mining industry live in the community? Do the salaries remain in the community? Or does the money leak out because they live 40 miles away and are living and paying property taxes in another county? 

Also, the ability of a community to capture the benefits in terms of people working at the sites, that varies tremendously. And you have to consider other potential economic impacts. There are some areas of western Wisconsin that have come to rely on tourism as a key economic sector, and frac sand mining is an industry that tends to radically alter the picturesque landscapes that are at the heart of tourism in Wisconsin. So one economic sector can undermine another and economic trade-offs need to be taken into consideration as well.

Then there is the volatility of any resource extraction industry. They tend to be characterized by boom and bust cycles and we’ve experienced this in western Wisconsin. The frac sand industry was booming from 2008-2015 and then it went into some decline. As oil prices declined, the fracking slowed down and many of the frac sand mines that had opened and were promising job creation and other benefits suddenly went dormant.  

If oil prices continue to rise, I’m guessing many of the inactive facilities will start up again. 

That’s likely, and a lot of people expect that at some point. But the fracking industry is evolving and drillers are experimenting with alternative proppants and alternative materials to inject into wells. And a lot of drillers are beginning to use sand that is mined in Texas. It’s lower quality sand, but they are realizing it is cost-effective to use it, as they can still get enough out of the wells to make it worth their while. It costs so much to transport frac sand that, at least right now, drillers are willing to use sand that is mined closer to the drill site. How that will impact Wisconsin in the future remains to be seen. 

Some grassroots organizations have been able to mobilize and prevent new mining operations from getting underway ...

The communities that have been most successful at stopping new mines from being permitted have been communities where citizens have ample opportunity to participate in the decision-making process—to speak at public hearings and to voice their concerns. They tend to be communities that have zoning or other land-use regulations in place. From the perspective of the mining company it becomes a very arduous process of having to convince town and county planning committees and boards, and to engage in a process that allows opportunities for citizens to express themselves. 

As I discuss in the book, one of the first frac sand mines that opened in the region is located in Dunn County just outside of Menomonie. It was permitted at a time when nobody knew anything about frac sand mining and most local officials thought the sand was going to be harvested for a local glass-making plant. When they realized that much of it would be exported out of state to be used in fracking, people felt they had been misled and were suspicious of subsequent proposed operations. 

One of the next proposed operations in Dunn County—which happened to be adjacent to a beloved conservation area, Hoffman Hills—met with extensive opposition, and there haven’t been any additional proposals to open a frac sand mine in the county. 

Mining companies have a history of following the path of least resistance; typically they look for counties where many of the towns aren’t zoned and where there aren’t opportunities for citizens to be engaged in the decision-making process. And in communities that are able to push back there is often a history of people having organized around similar issues and they are able to mobilize through networks or draw on that experience to confront the latest issue or threat. 

But the prospect of a mine coming into a community often pits neighbor against neighbor, not just residents vs. mining companies, correct?

Definitely. That’s something I really wanted to shine a light on. Frac sand mining continues to be incredibly divisive and controversial in communities in western Wisconsin. There are people who benefit from it and people whose way of life is altered and they have to deal with the impacts. So it’s very polarizing. 

Many people experience a profound sense of insecurity and disempowerment and vulnerability. Those feelings stem from some of the uncertainties around the environmental health aspects, as well as the fact that an industrial mining operation radically alters the landscape. So there is a pervasive sense of distrust in communities that have grappled with frac sand mining.

Often people who sign leases or sell their land to mining companies aren’t open about broadcasting to their neighbors that they are going to sell or lease to a mining company. In some cases, their contracts have non-disclosure clauses, so they are afraid to talk about it. And often a lot of the initial development happens behind-the-scenes and people find out about a proposed operation because of a notice in the local newspaper, after the wheels are already in motion. So for a lot of people it feels very sudden—like something shady is going on. 

Finally, in some rural communities local town officials might be indirectly connected to the mining industry because they have family who signed a lease or they work in an industry that is tied to mining. So there is that perceived conflict of interest that undermines a lot of people’s faith in their local government officials. 

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