State feeds national fracking boom; health, environmental concerns rise
By Jason Smathers
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
TUNNEL CITY — Retiree Letha Webster’s voice briefly cracks when she talks about leaving the town she and her husband have called home for 56 years. But she says selling her land to an out-of-state mining company was the best move she could have made.
The 84-year old was approached in late June by a Connecticut-based company, Unimin, that planned to build a sand mine in the area and was paying a good price for houses in the way.
Webster’s struggle to maintain her home and 8.5 acres of land while caring for her husband, Gene, who has Alzheimer’s, meant she would need to move soon anyway. Webster, whose property was valued last year at $147,400, says she has agreed to sell for more than double that amount: $330,000.
Others in the area are selling, too. In addition to Webster, there have been at least seven major transfers of land from residents of this unincorporated community in Monroe County to Unimin’s Eagle Land Investments since late May, according to state Department of Revenue records.
The 436 acres have a market value of just under $1.1 million. Unimin paid a combined $5.3 million to the property owners in Tunnel City, a community 45 miles northeast of La Crosse named for a nearby railroad tunnel.
This western Wisconsin community is in the midst of a land rush — call it a sand rush — fueled by exploding nationwide demand for fine silica sand used in hydraulic fracturing. In this process, nicknamed “fracking,” sand, water and chemicals are blasted into wells, creating fissures in the rock and freeing hard-to-reach pockets of oil and natural gas.
At least 16 frac-sand mines and processing facilities are operating, and an additional 25 sites are proposed, in a diagonal swath stretching across 15 Wisconsin counties from Burnett to Columbia, the Center has found. Chippewa County has seen the most action, as Wisconsin Public Radio’s Rich Kremer reported in June.
Most of the mining operations have sprung up over the past three years, stirring concerns about the effects on land and groundwater and health impacts on nearby residents. Of particular concern is crystalline silica, a dusty substance known to cause health problems including cancer and silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease.
Companies are focusing on sand from easily accessible deposits of Wonewoc and Jordan sandstone, which can be found in central and western Wisconsin, including along the Mississippi River, says Bruce Brown, a senior geologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey in Madison.
The type of sand in the Wonewoc and Jordan formations is known as Northern White, highly sought after by oil and natural gas companies for its shape, size and strength needed for fracking operations.
Companies are rushing to Wisconsin because of the nearly “inexhaustible” supply of this type of sand, which can fetch up to $200 a ton, he says. Wisconsin sand is heaped onto railroad cars and sent out West and elsewhere to fuel the nation’s fracking boom.
“I get calls from companies out of Denver that say ‘We need a supply of 30,000 tons a month,’ ” Brown says.
Health effects feared
Residents in several Wisconsin counties say they have been alarmed by the speed with which mining companies have snapped up land.
Some communities lack local land-use controls such as zoning that would allow them to manage the land rush. And despite concerns about the health and environmental impacts of such facilities, the state Department of Natural Resources has only a few regulations for sand mining operations.
Mining companies must file a reclamation plan with the county that spells how much land will be disturbed and how it will be rejuvenated once mining is completed, and they apply to be covered under a general DNR permit covering stormwater and wastewater. Other permits regulating air emissions and groundwater use may be required from the DNR.
But none specifically limits how much crystalline silica gets into the air, the main health worry for those living near the facilities. Drew Bradley, Unimin’s senior vice president of operations, says that while the risks of crystalline silica are well known in an occupational setting, there’s no evidence that ambient exposure poses any threat.
“I think (concerned residents) are blowing it out of proportion,” Bradley says. “There are plenty of silica mines sited close to communities. There have been no concerns exposed there. If you had five mines in a little community, maybe that’s a concentration that had to be looked at cumulatively.”
Judy Carey is among those concerned about the health effects of sand mining. Two years ago, Carey and her husband lived across the street from farmland in the Monroe County community of Oakdale. Now the only thing visible beyond the trees that pepper her lawn are mounds of frac-sand from the sand washing plant, which is operated by Proppant Specialists, an affiliate of FracTech Services of Brady, Texas.
As if the sand wasn’t close enough, Carey says the wind brings it into her house. She often finds a fine white powder on the side of her car and sand on dishes in her cabinet, which she rewashes each week. As messy as it is, she is more worried about the potential health risks. A spokeswoman for the company says it’s investigating Carey’s concerns.
“Your clothes are full of it, you can’t roll your car windows down,” says Carey, brushing sand from a chair on her front porch to welcome a visitor. “The breathing part of it isn’t good. You can just feel it in your throat, feel it in your nose.”
Crispin Pierce, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, says air quality monitors should be required to measure small particles from sand mining and processing.
The DNR currently requires air monitoring for some sand mining operations, but most companies ask for and are granted a variance to bypass the requirement, says Jeffery Johnson, a DNR environmental engineering supervisor. He knows of just one frac-sand processing plant that has been denied a waiver — EOG Resources of Houston, Texas. The company has been required to install a monitor for particulate matter because of concerns from neighbors of its Chippewa Falls plant.
Even then, the monitors do not detect the size of particles of most concern to people like Pierce. The DNR requires monitoring for large particles but says it lacks the expertise and resources to monitor for smaller particles commonly produced by frac-sand mining and processing. Pierce believes the DNR should develop a standard for safe exposure to silica that it can monitor.
In December, the state DNR confirmed there are potential risks from crystalline silica. But in a draft report, the agency recommended no additional regulation, in part because little is known about the how much crystalline silica escapes from these mining operations.
Jeff Myers, a DNR toxicologist who helped write the study, says any decision to regulate air quality around the sites would be up to the Natural Resources Board, which is expected to take up the issue once the report is finished in September or October.
Efforts to fight mining fail
For two years, Patricia Popple, a resident of Chippewa Falls, fought frac-sand operations in Chippewa County. Her group, Concerned Chippewa Citizens, even filed two lawsuits against the city to block a processing plant. But plans are still moving forward, and Popple has turned to advising other communities in similar positions to act quickly.
Two unzoned townships in Chippewa County also have unsuccessfully tried to block proposed mines. The towns of Howard and Cooks Valley in recent years each passed ordinances to stop sand-mining projects, but Chippewa County Circuit judges threw both out, ruling the zoning laws were invalid without County Board approval.
Cooks Valley took its case to the state Court of Appeals, where officials argued they had enacted a regulatory ordinance, not a zoning ordinance. The appellate court said the matter required further clarification from the state Supreme Court, which has not yet announced whether it will take the case.
After being contacted by constituents in her western Wisconsin district where mines are springing up, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, asked the nonpartisan Legislative Council for clarification on what local communities can do to regulate them. The council determined that zoning is the most direct option, but it cannot be applied after plans for mining are under way.
Vinehout says she’s seeking ideas from residents and other states about regulating nonmetallic mines.
“I think everybody is very interested in economic development,” Vinehout says, “but we’re very concerned about losing our environmental resources.”
Six Republican legislators who have frac-sand operations in their districts were contacted, but didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Tunnel City girds for a fight
Soon after residents began raising concerns about Unimin’s proposed Tunnel City mine and processing plant, the company rented out the Greenfield Town Hall for a forum to unveil its plans to the community.
Even before the July 6 presentation began, resident Will Koukios was telling members of the overflow crowd of more than 100 what would happen. He said the picturesque rolling hills, tree farms and country houses in the town of 700, which includes Tunnel City, would be cleared for a strip mine, whose stream of trucks, noise and dust would make residents’ lives miserable and their homes worthless.
Koukios alerted some in attendance that Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit legal center in Madison, had agreed to take their case. Anyone who wanted to be represented could sign up.
One resident interjected, “But we haven’t listened to anything yet.”
“That’s a very good point,” Unimin’s Bradley said as he nodded toward the woman.
Most of the residents listened intently during the first half-hour of the meeting. Unimin representative Steve Groening laid out the plan: Unimin had purchased several hundred acres of land over the past month and a half under a newly created entity, Eagle Land Investments — a tactic used, Groening says, to keep its interest secret from competitors, not the townspeople. He also said the company planned to buy more land in the area.
While Groening cautioned that everything was “preliminary,” he said the plan was to build a frac-sand mine and a $100 million processing plant between unincorporated Tunnel City and the Fort McCoy military training center.
In contrast to other mines in the area, he said, the Tunnel City mine would be unobtrusive. The land would be reclaimed as mining progresses. According to the company’s reclamation plan, no more than 150 acres would be disturbed at any one time. The company would not mine into the water table. And the processing plant would be completely enclosed to reduce noise and dust.
“We can sleep at night knowing that we do things right and don’t leave people high and dry,” Bradley said.
But as the meeting continued, residents began asking a series of pointed questions. They expressed concern about sand getting into their wells. Others worried about noise, health and potential depletion of water springs.
Unimin officials attempted to allay their fears, saying the scenarios they described would not happen. They said the company was the most conscientious of the sand-mining entities pouring into Wisconsin.
“If Unimin were to walk away today, I am certain, without a doubt, there will be other sand companies that come and look that come and try to set up,” Unimin vice president Chuck Collins said. “We’re No. 1 in the industry in frac sand … we’ll continue to be with or without a plant here. The next company that comes along will not be No. 1.”
Days before the meeting, Koukios and his neighbor, Tim Harmon, had confronted Greenfield Town Chairman Stephen Witt about why he had not alerted residents to the project. Witt acknowledges he knew about the mining company’s plans as early as June 16, when his own mother told him that she’d been asked to sell her property. But Witt said he agreed not to widely publicize their plans until Unimin was ready to make its announcement.
“If anybody has the responsibility to inform us,” Koukios says, “it’s him.”
Witt says after he heard about Unimin’s plans, he spoke with company representatives and took a tour of its processing plant near Mankato, Minn. He was impressed by the operation, saying the company appears to do a good job.
Witt’s mother and brother ended up selling their properties to Unimin, prompting some residents to question whether Witt had a conflict of interest as town board chairman. Witt acknowledges that he is the administrator of his mother’s estate but says he’s never looked at the will to see whether he would benefit. He also says town attorney Rick Radcliffe has advised him there is no conflict of interest. As far as Witt’s concerned, he’s representing the Greenfield voters as best he can.
Monroe County Supervisor Gail Chapman also has been approached to sell his land. He says he has made no decision yet.
“Our farm has been in the family for … 120-some years,” Chapman says. “I think that our family will not sell that for that purpose, but it’s my thinking anyway.”
Little study on silica effects
While all types of silica sand in Wisconsin produce airborne particles, the freshly fractured silica that comes from mining operations can be particularly dangerous, at least in a workplace setting, says Pierce, the UW-Eau Claire professor.
The problem, he says, is that most of the studies on crystalline silica exposure are based on its effect on miners and manufacturing employees.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported 75 deaths in Wisconsin between 1996 and 2005 from silicosis, primarily among workers in manufacturing, construction and mining. The number is based on workers’ compensation claims, hospital data, death certificate information and reports from health-care providers.
Pierce says with the proliferation of mining operations, the risk of exposure outside the workplace becomes a greater concern.
“The analogy I like to use is secondhand smoke,” Pierce says. “We know people that are exposed to second-hand smoke increase their risk, but there are confounding factors. Folks who live near a sand processing facility (that) have asthma already, they have an immune system that’s impaired … it’s difficult to prove cause and effect.”
In late 2010, the DNR’s draft report on the health effects of silica acknowledged the possible dangers of long-term exposure. The agency found that just five states regulate silica outside the workplace, primarily by requiring facilities such as mines to control dust and particulate emissions. Only Texas and California have the authority to require specific monitoring for crystalline silica, the study found.
The DNR report concluded that the agency lacked the expertise and resources to conduct air monitoring for silica, especially since so little is known about the risk it poses outside the workplace.
“In summary, limited ambient air data is available in the U.S. for crystalline silica,” the report said, “and no monitoring data exists in Wisconsin.”
In the town of Greenfield, the town board met July 25 and authorized Witt and Radcliffe to begin negotiating with Unimin over land use issues, including protecting the town’s roads. The town also formed an advisory committee to explore options for zoning, in order to protect the town if another mine company comes in. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for Aug. 8.
While Unimin’s plans still draw heated words from some community members, Webster, for one, is confident Unimin will do right by her — and Tunnel City.
“I was in business for a number of years, so I learned to be a little hard, cynical,” Webster says. “I don’t feel as though I’m easily taken in … I really do think we’re dealing with a company that has some honor.”
Jason Smathers can be reached at email@example.com. Reporters Julie Strupp and Lauren Hasler contributed to this report.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.