Sandblasted! A New Gold Rush

By Eric Lindquist Leader-Telegram staff

Beneath the rolling hills of west-central Wisconsin lies a natural resource so prized that it has spawned a new, rapidly growing industry. The region has seen an explosion of mines intended to extract sand to be used for an emerging practice known as hydraulic fracturing, in which sand is mixed with water and chemicals and injected at high pressure into rock deposits to extract natural gas and oil. Mining companies have shown particular interest in the sand available in parts of the Upper Midwest, including western Wisconsin, because it has just the right characteristics for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and is close enough to the surface to make its removal economically viable. The sand grains are the ideal size, shape and hardness to keep existing cracks in the rock open, thus increasing well yields. “People tell me this sand we have is not found anywhere else in the United States or the world,” said Gaylord Olson II, Jackson County conservationist. Officials from 12 west-central Wisconsin counties reported the region has a total of 22 “frac” sand mines that are either operating or approved. Paperwork has been submitted for 16 additional mines, and many more sites are being considered. Remarkably, almost all of this digging is new in the past few years. “We’re moving from the prospecting phase to the permitting and production phase of frac sand mining,” said Dan Masterpole, Chippewa County conservationist and director of the county’s Land Conservation and Forest Management Department. “It’s the establishment of a new industry in Wisconsin.”
Chippewa and Trempealeau counties lead the area with five frac sand mines apiece that are either operating or approved. Trempealeau County also is reviewing five other mines sites, including two in which approval was delayed last week because the county wanted more information. Two additional mines are proposed for Chippewa County, where a cluster has developed west of Bloomer, including three mines totaling 536 acres approved in the last two months. Jackson County is next with four approved mines and three more in the review stage. Only Eau Claire and Rusk County in the region don’t have any frac sand mines approved or proposed, although a mining company has met with town of Otter Creek officials about the possibility of digging there, said Rod Eslinger, zoning administrator for Eau Claire County. Before starting operations, the company would have to apply to the county for a conditional use permit to establish a nonmetallic mine operation and file a reclamation plan to show how the site would be restored. While many of the area mines are new, companies in Dunn, St. Croix and Pepin counties recently have applied for permits to revamp existing limestone quarries by digging deeper to extract deposits of frac sand. Buffalo County just approved its first frac sand mine, planned about five miles south of Mondovi, two weeks ago. “We’ve got a resource here in western Wisconsin; that’s for sure,” said Paul van Eijl, the county’s zoning administrator. While Joe Hertel, manager of the state Commerce Department’s mine safety program, pointed to increased employment as a positive result of what he called this “up and coming thing,” not everyone is happy about all of the new development. Kevin Lien, director of the Trempealeau County Department of Land Management, said a number of people turned up at public hearings last week on the county’s two latest frac sand mine proposals and complained about potentially negative effects on the environment and roads. “Many local people got up and expressed concern about what’s happening to our county,” Lien said. Some regional conservation officials, especially those in counties without zoning ordinances, said they have little authority to regulate the burgeoning mining industry beyond ensuring the companies file adequate plans for restoring the land after they are done digging. “The reclamation ordinance is really the only regulatory authority we have,” said Pepin County conservationist Chase Cummings, who nonetheless has concerns about the potential public health implications of the new generation of mines. Even in Chippewa County, where mines and a processing plant have faced active opposition, Masterpole said most people don’t understand the gold rush-type mentality regarding the sand that fuels the relatively new energy extraction technique that some experts predict could dramatically expand the amount of natural gas available in the U.S. With the region a hot spot for frac sand deposits, today’s 38 existing and proposed mines could prove to be just the tip of the iceberg. The Chippewa County Department of Land Conservation and Forest Management, for instance, receives inquiries on an ongoing basis from landowners wondering if their property has potential for mine development and from companies seeking information about the permit process for establishing new mines, Masterpole said. “I don’t think the general public is aware yet of the scope of the expansion and what the long-term impacts may be,” he said. As mines pop up all over west-central Wisconsin to meet soaring frac sand demand from the oil and natural gas industries, mining companies are investing not only in mines but also in processing plants and rail spurs to prepare and ship the sought-after raw material. “That indicates,” Masterpole said, “they must believe there will be sustained demand.”