fracking boom has transformed rural Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, and
areas like it. There’s no oil or gas here — just sand, the kind
oil and gas drillers prefer. Fracking has made sand a $10 billion
industry, and publicly traded companies have rushed in, digging enormous
mines. Trempealeau — on the western side of the state, population 28,000 or so — has more mines than any other county.
“The onset of industrial sand-mining pretty much flipped our county upside-down,” says Kevin Lien, who runs the county’s Department of Land Management. “And that’s probably an understatement.”
Pat Malone gives me a tour in
her candy-apple red Toyota Corolla. She’s been here 26 years as a
professor with the University of Wisconsin’s cooperative extension— kind
of a full-time policy consultant to local government, on topics that
include planning, health and economic development.
In March 2010, a woman
came into her office, worried about a new neighbor. “She was talking
about this sand mine, and all these awful things that would happen,”
Malone recalls. “And in my head I’m going, ‘It’s just sand.’”
Malone had seen plenty of sand mines. Mostly small and temporary – gravel pits – supplying local construction projects.
But when she looked at the
permit application for this mine, it was different. Most were a few
pages long. This one was a few inches thick.
In the next three years, the county approved 27 more permits like it.
We go past that first site and
many others: Giant silos, processing plants and huge piles of sand. All
on land that used to be rolling hills, covered with trees.
All of which have special value
to people here, as Malone knows through the many surveys and focus
groups she has conducted as part of the county’s planning process.
“People really, really, really value the natural environment here,” she
says. “Universally, top of the list.”
She says local residents pay a
price for that value, in dollars. “If people took their job skills and
went to New York or Chicago or Boston, they could make more money,” she
says, “both in absolute and in real terms.”
She gestures to the land around us. “But because they like this – these
scenic hills, and the clean water, and the knowing who your neighbor
is, and going and sitting in your patch of woods and hearing nothing – nothing! They’re willing to pay for that.”
In addition to the changing landscape, people close to the mines hate the lights at night, the noise from blasting.
Then there are trucks carrying out the sand. Most mines are permitted for at least 100 a day, and two-lane roads are the norm.
“You look at this road,” Malone
says as we idle near a mine, “and you’re like, gaad. Do you really want
heavy truck traffic coming up and down this thing?”
Last, but not at all least, people worry about the air and the water.
Sand processing uses some potentially harmful chemicals, and there have been spills.
“A couple of years ago, we had
seven mines operating here,” recalls Lien, the county land-use director.
“And all seven were cited … for storm water-runoff events. All
seven. So the track-record isn’t great.”
With air quality, the big concern is dust – tiny particles that can be deadly over the long term.
In 2013, the county board
declared a one-year moratorium on new mining permits, and Malone worked
with a committee that studied the issue.
“For some of them I think they got sadder,” she says. “And for some of them, they got angrier.”
Among other things, the committee’s 150-page report found that mining had affected wells near some mines – and
wells supply the county’s drinking water. With air quality, the
committee found there wasn’t enough monitoring to know how much dust
residents might be exposed to.
Malone takes me down County
Road Q, where Hi-Crush Partners operates Trempealeau’s newest and
biggest mine. A mile-long conveyor belt crosses the 800-acre site – and passes over County Road Q like a viaduct. It takes sand from the mine to a rail spur that Hi-Crush built.
Chad McEver, a Hi-Crush
executive who develops and oversees new mines, says the conveyor saves
money. “Not having to truck is a huge advantage when it comes to costs,”
he says. Less diesel, no drivers.
He expects the conveyor is also
less annoying for neighbors. “We plan on on being here for a long
time,” says McEver. “So we want people to like us and want us to be
That means financial support
for local projects, and it means McEver tries to be responsive when
neighbors complain. “If there are legitimate concerns or issues, we
always take care of it, no questions asked,” he says. “We believe as a
company in trying to treat people the way we’d want to be treated,
and I can honestly say that’s what we do.”
That doesn’t mean the neighbors
are happy. They still put up with noise from blasting, lights at night
and lingering concerns about air and water.
Water is the biggest concern
for Bill and Angela Sylla, who live and farm across County Road Q from
Hi-Crush. Their sons are 2 and 5 years old.
pump feeding their chicken barn failed last summer, not long after the
Hi-Crush mine opened. Bill says it was clogged with sand. Hi-Crush had
the well tested, and traces of lead and arsenic showed up.
“When you put everything
together, they said it’s an OK level,” says Angela, speaking from her
kitchen table while her sons angle for her attention. “So it’s not
unsafe, but it’s there.”
McEver says the mine hasn’t hurt the Syllas’ water. Pat Malone has looked at the data and says it’s inconclusive.
Hi-Crush first showed up, some of the Syllas’ neighbors sold land to
the mine, at a big premium. Bill had just moved home to take over the
farm his family has run for generations.
Now, they’re isolated, sleepless, worried about the water.
“The depression a person
suffers some days is astronomical,” says Bill. “Because you just don’t
know where to go, what to do. What can you do? What should you do?
What’s your best option? You don’t know.”
Through an agreement with the
local government, Hi-Crush would buy the Syllas’ house for a guaranteed
price, but not the $500,000 chicken barn the family installed a few
years ago or the 200 acres they farm. For now, they’re staying put.
“These facilities are not going to make everybody happy,” McEver says. “There’s no question about it.”
On the other hand, he says, the
mine contributes to the local economy. “Every day I think of new
examples,” he says. “Our plants buying parts from the local auto-parts
store, the local hardware store, or the local janitorial company that
comes out and cleans the offices.”
Malone ran economic-impact
numbers when the first mine showed up, and found a modest contribution. A
mine’s biggest expenditures – on heavy machinery – can’t
be made locally. “You are talking about some big, honking pieces of
equipment,” she says. “Well, there’s no Massive Pieces of Equipment
retail outlet in Trempealeau County.”
Similarly, the profits go
elsewhere, says financial analyst Brandon Dobell, who watches the oil
and gas industry for William Blair & Co. “The sand’s being sold
someplace else,” he says. “No one is headquartered in Wisconsin. It’s
not like Texas, which has benefited from the gazillions of dollars going
into these wells, and the taxes from the oil and gas.”