Frac sand mining debate fractures a community
Post by Christie Taylor on 8/14/2012 9:00am
Tucked at the very western edge of the state, between the Mississippi River and the rest of Wisconsin, Buffalo County is sparsely populated, with about 13,000 people spread across its hills and valleys. It has good farmland, and, as more of its residents are discovering, good sand for hydrofracking, which is sweeping up the county’s rural towns and villages in a mineral boom that expands with every passing month.
That boom is also leading to tension between neighbors in the traditionally quiet communities.
More than 200 people packed the gym of the Alma School last Thursday night to speak for and against a proposed sand mining operation that would span 450 acres of farmland owned by seven families--calling themselves "Seven Sands"--in the nearby town of Montana, a community of about 300 people. The meeting dragged on for six hours, with hours of expert testimony and 50 members of the public also weighing in, their comments divided about equally between “for” and “against.” Eventually, the proposal was tabled.
It was a visibly divided crowd, with several dozen wearing bright yellow (and sometimes gray) shirts with the logo of Glacier Sands, the mining company that would operate the Seven Sands mine, printed on the front, and “Sand = Jobs” on the back. Speakers were cheered by like-minded attendees at the conclusion of their three minutes of testimony.
Several pro-mine speakers compared the sand to a crop that the landowners had every right to “take to market,” just like corn or milk. Linda Baecker said her family was “drowning in debt,” and the mine would be a “life preserver.”
Bob Baecker, one of seven landowners applying for the permit under the name Seven Sands, said he hoped his land would be easier to farm after the reclamation process the company is promising to carry out after the sand has been mined from a particular spot. The steepness of the land currently encourages topsoil erosion, he said. “Our soil ends up in the Gulf of Mexico,” he explained. “We’re just taking some sand out of the hill.”
As a farmer Baecker has won regional awards for land stewardship, which he held up as proof that he would continue to be careful about the environmental impacts of the mine. Fellow Seven Sands landowner Deborah Bork said the community was “dying,” and other mine supporters said the project would help bring the county’s young people back to the community, as well as help those who commute to Winona, La Crosse, and other cities for work into people who could work where they lived.
A resident of nearby Mondovi cited the lack of improvement in the unemployment rate--it went from 6.3 percent last year to 6.4 in June of 2012, still better than the state’s unemployment rate--as evidence of great need. “We should be inviting these industries to Buffalo County, saying ‘Look what we have to offer,’” he said.
Several mine opponents said the mine went against the wishes of the entire township: Indeed, Montana residents collectively created a land use plan in 2003 that, though nonbinding, emphasized a shared value of the area’s natural beauty, lack of busy traffic, quiet atmosphere, and primarily agriculture-based economy. But Seven Sands landowner Dennis Bork is also the Montana Town Chair, and at the meeting Thursday he said the nine-year-old plan was “out of date” and would need to change.
An adjacent landowner cited concerns with the way the plan had seemingly expanded since initial discussions, and that, as a former civil engineer, he hoped the final plan would take a holistic view of the county’s needs: “My opinion is that this will have an adverse effect on our community.” Even so, he said, he respected the opinions of the mine advocates: “There’s good people on both sides of this issue,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in fluorescent green shirts who are good people, they’re wise, they understand the issues.”
Mine opponents worried about the transportation route, too: With the plan to build a rail spur at Cochrane-Fountain City School denied, the nearest place to ship sand to the south would be Winona, Minnesota. Many had stories, sometimes conflicting, from other communities with mines, particularly New Auburn, which one speaker said had seen noticeable economic improvement, while another detailed seeing a dusty haze in the air and roads “white with sand.”
Nick Hennemann, the attorney representing the Cochrane-Fountain City School District, argued that the mine application, which had only a few broad statements about the final project and stated the route but not the final destination of sand from the mine, was not sufficiently complete: Buffalo County actually has a mining moratorium until late October, and, despite having been submitted before the moratorium took effect, Hennemann said the Seven Sands application should not be considered valid.
Furthermore, he argued, mining sand for hydrofracking was not covered in the county zoning ordinance, which allows for mining of sand for “aggregate” purposes, such as road construction and recreational sand. Glacier Sands must first seek a variance from the county if they wanted to mine at that scale.
Community members had other concerns: The final destination of the sand was still unspecified, for example, and the added truck traffic on the bridge to nearby Winona might endanger the bridge integrity. Several spoke up about the trucks’ diesel exhaust, which the World Health Organization recently reported to be a carcinogen as dangerous as secondhand smoke. Sand facilities have caused spills elsewhere in Wisconsin. Respirable silica, or sand particles smaller than one twentieth the diameter of a human hair, causes a life-threatening lung condition called silicosis, though the Department of Natural Resources has refused to adopt a rule regulating airborne silica.
Furthermore, tourism, one of the main sources of revenue in the county, relies on natural beauty and, for cyclists and motorcyclists who tour regularly, good road conditions as well.
Claire Waters, a former Buffalo County Board member, suggested a referendum on support for the sand mining industry.
“Put it to the voters,” Waters said. “Then you as a board would know if frac sand really is the new industry of Buffalo County.”
The protester next door
One of the most passionate speakers at the meeting was Nettie Rosenow, who owns farmland, runs a dairy, and sells compost with her husband right next to the proposed mine site. The Rosenows, who have four anti-mine signs in their front yard, are so adamantly opposed to the mine that they hired a lawyer and filed a lengthy motion to dismiss the application. The lawyer also presents expert testimony (non-Glacier Sands testimony is limited to 15 minutes for experts, three minutes for everyone else) at county meetings on their behalf.
“If we didn’t have some money in savings, we wouldn’t be able to fight it like this,” Rosenow explained. “Then what? You’d be just another person sitting there complaining. But when your lawyer writes a really nice long brief, people sit up and listen. It’s criminal you have to defend yourself like this against these people who are your neighbors.”
During her three minutes of testimony as a private citizen, Rosenow echoed Hennemann’s point that the application contained few details of the mining process itself, and did not meet the standards of the zoning ordinance.
“I want to remind you that your ordinance says to promote the public health, safety and general welfare,” she said. When she ran out of time and was asked to stop speaking, a few mining advocates heckled her, and she turned to them with a distinctly angry middle finger, one of the few truly tense moments of the night.
Rosenow, who has lived in the valley for the past 40 years, said the issue of sand has divided the quiet farming community in a way she’s never seen before.
“People just kind of try to get along,” she said. “People generally love the beauty of the place, they want to protect it.”
Yet, Rosenow said, one of the landowners for Seven Sands had even come to her farm recently and said she and her husband were “spoiled,” living in the valley. She said, days later, she still didn’t know how to respond to that.
“So because it’s nice, we should wreck it?” she said, exasperated. “Because it’s quiet, we should make it noisy?”
“Everything supports agriculture in this area,” she went on. “Everything that comes in and out of this road, all the way out to Winona, it’s all for what we do here.” Industrial-level sand mining, in contrast, doesn’t belong. “This is nontraditional, it’s for energy,” she said. “It’s not what we do.”
Reclamation for agriculture
Rosenow, like others who opposed the mine, doesn’t see any sense in tearing up good farmland to pull sand out of the ground, especially in the valleys around Montana.
“This whole thing is called the Garden Valley,” she said, on a misty afternoon that had seen several heavy showers already. “I think that says a lot.” While the area around Montana and Waumandee was hit by some drought this summer, it’s mostly been a healthy year, and the corn is tall and hearty-looking. “We usually get good crops, there’s good farming here,” she said.
Like other mine opponents, she’s worried about the air quality, and the water. The mine site is the home of the Waumandee Creek, the 100-year floodplain for which covers much of the valley because its waters rise so high so quickly when it rains. And they’ve had multiple hundred-year floods in the past decade, Rosenow explained.
Another adjacent landowner worried about the well drawdown or contamination of the groundwater aquifer with sand or the processing chemicals used to clean the sand. “Farmers only use the wells during dry periods,” the woman said. “If there’s a water drawdown in Waumandee, we are out of business. Cattle cannot go one day without a working well.”
“We all live here, we all share the water,” Rosenow said. “I don’t understand how they can do this.”
And after the mine, restoring the land for farming is a complicated matter, more so than restoring it for wildlife: To grow crops, soil needs to have the right bacteria and water drainage properties, and compacting it, such as under heavy tractors, threatens that recovery.
UW-Eau Claire biologist Evan Weiher, testifying as a paid consultant for the mining company, said reclamation for agricultural purposes would be successful if the company replaced the topsoil quickly enough to avoid killing vital microorganisms. The soil would have to avoid being compacted by heavy equipment as well.
Robert Miller, a retired soil scientist with experience working with restoration of surface coal mines, said it was harder than Weiher claimed. “Agricultural land after a mining operation is a drastically disturbed soil,” Miller said. “Microbiologically, chemically, and physically, these soils will deteriorate as they are stored.”
Furthermore, he said, the amount of soil to be replaced -- in distinct layers -- was greater than people might think.
“When you reclaim land for agricultural purposes, it is not six inches, it is not the topsoil, it is at least 4 feet of soil,” Miller said.
Stalled by transportation concerns
In the end it was the logistical and safety concerns of the trucks themselves that tabled the proposal. One of the biggest points of concern for area residents was the impact of hauling 190 truckloads of sand per day down county roads U and E and state roads 88 and 35.
The trucks would run between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m., with hour-long breaks in the morning and afternoon during peak school bus traffic, and, factoring in return routes, amount to 380 total new vehicles on the road. Route 88 in particular contains sharp turns, and 35 goes straight past Cochrane-Fountain City School. It was that same school, and concerns about traffic and air pollution, that killed a proposal for a processing facility and rail spur near it this July.
Hennemann, the school district attorney, said that routing those trucks south past the school, even with exceptions during hours when school buses would run, endangered students. “The atypical traffic pattern in front of the school is one of the biggest safety concerns...and when we mix that with students who are new drivers, that creates a very dangerous situation,” Hennemann said.
At about 11:30 p.m., five hours into the meeting, the three-member board finally decided to table the application until the transportation matter could be resolved. Board member Chris Weisenbeck said he was already willing to approve the application, saying the road situation “is what it is,” but the company must still submit a final hauling plan. Additionally, the Board of Estimates advised the county board to study the impact of hauling on county roads.
According to the Winona Daily News, it might be several months before the board schedules another meeting to discuss the matter.
In the meantime, tension between neighbors more used to quietly going about their work will likely continue to simmer as the bigger debate--about mining, about the overall future of the community-- continues.
Photos by Emily Mills. For the full set click here.
Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) covers science, environment, and, depending on the season, state politics for dane101. She verbs a lot of nouns, including rollerskates, radio, and Kurt Vonnegut. A Madison native, she's not sure she'll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that's just fine by her. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.