Random Read

The Fight Over Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin {excerpt}

On a cold January night, in a drafty 1850s-era town hall in Vernon County, I sat on a pew facing my town board. For several months I'd noticed "frac sand mining" on the meeting agenda posted at the town dump. Finally, I'd come to find out what local officials were discussing.

I was aware of Wisconsin's frac sand mining boom. The number of permitted or operational mines and processing facilities rose from 10 in 2010 to 130 this year. Nearly 100 more mines and facilities are proposed or under development.

Wisconsin's sand, with its hard and uniformly rounded grains, is used in the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process. Injected into fissures that drilling companies blast into the shale in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, the sand helps hold open those cracks so that oil or natural gas can flow easily to the wellhead.

Gov. Scott Walker has lauded the recent sand mining rush as a promising source for new jobs. Meanwhile, those who live near the mines protest the noise, lights, truck and rail traffic, and the fine silica dust that coats their windows and decks and the clothes they hang outside to dry. They worry that the dust is coating their lungs, too, and potentially leading to lung disease.

The state's Department of Natural Resources, charged with regulating air and water quality, has admitted that it lacks the staff and resources to adequately oversee the frac sand operations. Additionally, the agency holds no power to limit noise, lights, traffic or a mine's hours. Nor do federal agencies that regulate other aspects of mines. As frac sand facilities have proliferated, so have local ordinances meant to control their effects.