How Rural America Got Fracked

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This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.

If the world can be seen in a
grain of sand, watch out. As Wisconsinites are learning, there’s money (and
misery) in sand — and if you’ve got the right kind, an oil company may soon be
at your doorstep.

March in Wisconsin used to mean
snow on the ground, temperatures so cold that farmers worried about their cows
freezing to death. But as I traveled around rural townships and villages in
early March to interview people about frac-sand mining, a little-known cousin
of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” daytime temperatures soared to nearly 80
degrees — bizarre weather that seemed to be sending a meteorological message.

In this troubling spring, Wisconsin’s prairies and
farmland fanned out to undulating hills that cradled the land and its people.
Within their embrace, the rackety calls of geese echoed from ice-free ponds,
bald eagles wheeled in the sky, and deer leaped in the brush. And for the first
time in my life, I heard the thrilling warble of sandhill cranes.

Yet this peaceful rural
landscape is swiftly becoming part of a vast assembly line in the corporate
race for the last fossil fuels on
the planet. The target: the sand in the land of the cranes.

Five hundred million years
ago, an ocean surged here, shaping a unique wealth of hills and bluffs that,
under mantles of greenery and trees, are sandstone. That sandstone contains a
particularly pure form of crystalline silica. Its grains, perfectly rounded,
are strong enough to resist the extreme pressures of the technology called
hydraulic fracturing, which pumps vast quantities of that sand, as well as
water and chemicals, into ancient shale formations to force out methane and
other forms of “natural gas.”

That sand, which props open
fractures in the shale, has to come from somewhere. Without it, the fracking
industry would grind to a halt. So big multinational corporations are
descending on this bucolic region to cart off its prehistoric sand, which will
later be forcefully injected into the earth elsewhere across the country to
produce more natural gas. Geology that has taken millions of years to form is
now being transformed into part of a system, a machine, helping to drive global
climate change.

“The valleys will be
filled… the mountains and hills made level”

Boom times for hydraulic
fracturing began in 2008 when new horizontal-drilling methods transformed an
industry formerly dependent on strictly vertical boring. Frac-sand mining took
off in tandem with this development.

“It’s huge,” said a U.S. Geological Survey
mineral commodity specialist in 2009. “I’ve never seen anything like it, the
growth. It makes my head spin.” That year, from all U.S. sources,
frac-sand producers used or sold over 6.5 million metric tons of sand — about
what the Great Pyramid of Giza weighs. Last month, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) Senior Manager and Special Projects Coordinator Tom Woletz said
corporations were hauling at least 15 million metric tons a year from the
state’s hills.

By July 2011, between 22 and
36 frac-sand facilities in Wisconsin
were either operating or approved. Seven months later, said Woletz, there were
over 60 mines and 45 processing (refinement) plants in operation. “By the time
your article appears, these figures will be obsolete,” claims Pat Popple, who
in 2008 founded the first group to oppose frac-sand mining, Concerned Chippewa
Citizens (now part of The Save the Hills Alliance).

Jerry Lausted, a retired teacher
and also a farmer, showed me the tawny ridges of sand that delineated a strip
mine near the town of Menomonie
where he lives. “If we were looking from the air,” he added, “you’d see ponds
in the bottom of the mine where they dump the industrial waste water. If you
scan to the left, you’ll see the hills that are going to disappear.”

Those hills are gigantic
sponges, absorbing water, filtering it, and providing the region’s aquifer with
the purest water imaginable. According to Lausted, sand mining takes its
toll on “air quality, water quality and quantity. Recreational aspects of the
community are damaged. Property values [are lowered.] But the big thing is,
you’re removing the hills that you can’t replace. They’re a huge water
manufacturing factory that Mother Nature gave us, and they’re gone.”

It’s impossible to grasp the
scope of the devastation from the road, but aerial videos and photographs reveal
vast, bleak sandy wastelands punctuated with waste ponds and industrial
installations where Wisconsin hills once
stood.

When corporations apply to
counties for mining permits, they must file “reclamation” plans. But Larry
Schneider, a retired metallurgist and industrial consultant with a specialized
knowledge of mining, calls the reclamation process “an absolute farce.”

Reclamation projects by
mining corporations since the 1970s may have made mined areas “look a little
less than an absolute wasteland,” he observes. “But did they reintroduce the biodiversity?
Did they reintroduce the beauty and the ecology? No.”

Studies bear out his
verdict. “Every year,” wrote Mrinal Ghose in the Journal
of Scientific and Industrial Research
, “large areas are continually
becoming unfertile in spite of efforts to grow vegetation on the degraded mined
land.”

Awash in promises of
corporate jobs and easy money, those who lease and sell their land just shrug.
“The landscape is gonna change when it’s all said and done,” says dairy farmer
Bobby Schindler, who in 2008 leased his land in Chippewa County to a frac-sand
company called Canadian Sand and Proppant. (EOG, the former Enron, has since
taken over the lease.) “Instead of being a hill it’s gonna be a valley, but all
seeded down, and you’d never know there’s a mine there unless you were familiar
with the area.”

Of the mining he adds, “It’s
really put a boost to the area. It’s impressive the amount of money that’s
exchanging hands.” Eighty-four-year-old Letha Webster, who sold her land 100
miles south of Schindler’s to another mining corporation, Unimin, says that
leaving her home of 56 years is “just the price of progress.”

Jamie and Kevin Gregar —
both 30-something native Wisconsinites and military veterans — lived in a
trailer and saved their money so that they could settle down in a pastoral
paradise once Kevin returned from Iraq. In January 2011, they found a
dream home near tiny Tunnel
City. (The village takes
its name from a nearby rail tunnel). “It’s just gorgeous — the hills, the
trees, the woodland, the animals,” says Jamie. “It’s perfect.”

Five months after they moved
in, she learned that neighbors had leased their land to “a sand mine” company.
“What’s a sand mine?” she asked.

Less than a year later, they
know all too well. The Gregars’ land is now surrounded on three sides by an
unsightly panorama of mining preparations. Unimin is uprooting trees, gouging
out topsoil, and tearing down the nearby hills. “It looks like a disaster zone,
like a bomb went off,” Jamie tells me.

When I mention her service to
her country, her voice breaks. “I am devastated. We’ve done everything right.
We’ve done everything we were supposed to. We just wanted to raise our family
in a good location and have good neighbors and to have it taken away from us
for something we don’t support…” Her voice trails off in tears.

For
Unimin, the village of Tunnel City in Greenfield
township was a perfect target. Not only did the land contain the coveted
crystalline silica; it was close to a rail spur. No need for the hundreds of
diesel trucks that other corporations use to haul sand from mine sites to
processing plants. No need, either, for transport from processing plants to
rail junctions where hundreds of trains haul frac-sand by the millions of tons
each year to fracture other once-rural landscapes. Here, instead, the entire
assembly line operates in one industrial zone.

There was also no need for
jumping the hurdles zoning laws sometimes erect. Like many Wisconsin towns
where a culture of diehard individualism sees zoning as an assault on personal
freedom, Greenfield and all its municipalities,
including Tunnel City, are unzoned. This allowed the
corporation to make deals with individual landowners. For the 8.5 acres where
Letha Webster and her husband Gene lived for 56 years, assessed in 2010 at
$147,500, Unimin paid $330,000. Overall, between late May and July 2011, it
paid $5.3 million for 436 acres with a market value of about $1.1 million.

There was no time for public
education about the potential negative possibilities of frac-sand mining: the
destruction of the hills, the decline in property values, the danger of
silicosis (once considered a strictly occupational lung disease) from blowing
silica dust, contamination of ground water from the chemicals used in the
processing plants, the blaze of lights all night long, noise from hundreds of
train cars, houses shaken by blasting. Ron Koshoshek, a leading
environmentalist who works with Wisconsin’s
powerful Towns Association to educate townships about the industry, says that
“frac-sand mining will virtually end all residential development in rural
townships.” The result will be “a large-scale net loss of tax dollars to towns,
increasing taxes for those who remain.”

Town-Busting Tactics

Frac-sand corporations count
on a combination of naïveté, trust, and incomprehension in rural hamlets that
previously dealt with companies no larger than Wisconsin’s local sand and gravel
industries. Before 2008, town boards had never handled anything beyond road
maintenance and other basic municipal issues. Today, multinational corporations
use their considerable resources to steamroll local councils and win sweetheart
deals. That’s how the residents of Tunnel
City got taken to the
cleaners.

On July 6, 2011, a Unimin
representative ran the first public forum about frac-sand mining in the
village. Other heavily attended and often heated community meetings followed,
but given the cascades of cash, the town board chairman’s failure to take a
stand against the mining corporation, and Unimin’s aggressiveness, tiny Tunnel City
was a David without a slingshot.

Local citizens did manage to
get the corporation to agree to give the town $250,000 for the first two
million tons mined annually, $50,000 more than its original offer. In exchange,
the township agreed that any ordinance it might pass in the future to restrict
mining wouldn’t apply to Unimin. Multiply the two million tons of frac-sand
tonnage Unimin expects to mine annually starting in 2013 by the $300 a ton the
industry makes and you’ll find that the township only gets .0004% of what the
company will gross.

For the Gregars, it’s been a
nightmare. Unimin has refused five times to buy their land and no one else
wants to live near a sand mine. What weighs most heavily on the couple is the
possibility that their children will get silicosis from long-term exposure to
dust from the mine sites. “We don’t want our kids to be lab rats for frac-sand
mining companies,” says Jamie.

Drew Bradley, Unimin’s senior
vice president of operations, waves such fears aside. “I think [citizens] are
blowing it out of proportion,” he told a local
publication. “There are plenty of silica mines sited close to communities.
There have been no concerns exposed there.”

That’s cold comfort to the
Gregars. Crystalline silica is a known carcinogen and
the cause of silicosis, an irreversible, incurable disease. None of the very
few rules applied to sand mining by the state’s Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) limit how much silica gets into the air outside of mines. That’s the main
concern of those living near the facilities.

So in November 2011, Jamie
Gregar and ten other citizens sent a 35-page petition to the DNR. The
petitioners asked the agency to declare respirable
crystalline silica a hazardous substance and to monitor it, using a public
health protection level set by California’s Office
of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment
. The petition relies on
studies, including one by the DNR
itself, which acknowledge the risk of airborne silica from frac-sand mines for
those who live nearby.

The DNR denied the petition,
claiming among other things that — contrary to its own study’s findings —
current standards are adequate. One of the petition’s signatories, Ron
Koshoshek, wasn’t surprised. For 16 years he was a member of, and for nine
years chaired, Wisconsin’s
Public Intervenor Citizens Advisory
Committee. Created in 1967, its role was to intercede on behalf of the
environment, should tensions grow between the DNR’s two roles: environmental
protector and corporate licensor. “The DNR,” he says, “is now a permitting
agency for development and exploitation of resources.”

In 2010, Cathy Stepp, a
confirmed anti-environmentalist who had previously railed against the
DNR, belittling it as “anti-development, anti-transportation, and
pro-garter snakes,” was appointed to head the agency by now-embattled
Governor Scott Walker who explained: “I wanted someone with a
chamber-of-commerce mentality.”

As for Jamie Gregar, her
dreams have been dashed and she’s determined to leave her home. “At this
point,” she says, “I don’t think there’s a price we wouldn’t accept.”

Frac-Sand vs. Food

Brian Norberg and his family
in Prairie Farm, 137 miles northwest of Tunnel City,
paid the ultimate price: he died while trying to mobilize the community against
Procore, a subsidiary of the multinational oil and gas corporation Sanjel. The
American flag that flies in front of the Norbergs’ house flanks a placard with
a large, golden NORBERG, over which pheasants fly against a blue sky. It’s
meant to represent the 1,500 acres the family has farmed for a century.

“When you start talking about
industrial mining, to us, you’re violating the land,” Brian’s widow, Lisa, told
me one March afternoon over lunch. She and other members of the family, as well
as a friend, had gathered to describe Prairie Farm’s battle with the
frac-sanders. “The family has had a really hard time accepting the fact that
what we consider a beautiful way to live could be destroyed by big industry.”

Their fight against Procore
started in April 2011: Sandy, a lifelong friend and neighbor, arrived with sand
samples drillers had excavated from her land, and began enthusiastically
describing the benefits of frac-sand mining. “Brian listened for a few
minutes,” Lisa recalls. “Then he told her [that]… she and her sand vials could
get the heck — that’s a much nicer word than what he used — off the farm. Sandy was hoping we would
also be excited about jumping on the bandwagon. Brian informed her that our
land would be used for the purpose God intended, farming.”

Brian quickly enlisted family
and neighbors in an organizing effort against the company. In June 2011,
Procore filed a reclamation plan — the first step in the permitting process —
with the county’s land and water conservation department. Brian rushed to the
county office to request a public hearing, but returned dejected and depressed.
“He felt completely defeated that he could not protect the community from them
moving in and destroying our lives,” recalls Lisa.

He died of a heart attack
less than a day later at the age of 52. The family is convinced his death was a
result of the stress caused by the conflict. That stress is certainly all too
real. The frac-sand companies, says family friend Donna Goodlaxson, echoing
many others I interviewed for this story, “go from community to community. And
one of the things they try to do is pit people in the community against each
other.”

Instead of backing off, the
Norbergs and other Prairie Farm residents continued Brian’s efforts. At an
August 2011 public hearing, the town’s residents directly addressed Procore’s
representatives. “What people had to say there was so powerful,” Goodlaxson
remembers. “Those guys were blown out of their chairs. They weren’t prepared
for us.”

“I think people insinuate
that we’re little farmers in a little community and everyone’s an ignorant
buffoon,” added Sue Glaser, domestic partner of Brian’s brother Wayne. “They
found out in a real short time there was a lot of education behind this.”

“About 80% of the
neighborhood was not happy about the potential change to our area,” Lisa adds.
“But very few of us knew anything about this industry at [that] time.”
To that end, Wisconsin’s Farmers’ Union and its Towns Association organized a day-long
conference in December 2011 to help people “deal with this new industry.”

Meanwhile, other towns,
alarmed by the explosion of frac-sand mining, were beginning to pass licensing ordinances
to regulate the industry. In Wisconsin,
counties can challenge zoning but not licensing ordinances, which fall under
town police powers. These, according to Wisconsin
law, cannot be overruled by counties or the state. Becky Glass, a Prairie Farm
resident and an organizer with Labor Network for Sustainability, calls Wisconsin’s town police
powers “the strongest tools towns have to fight or regulate frac-sand mining.”
Consider them so many slingshots employed against the corporate Goliaths.

In April 2012, Prairie Farm’s
three-man board voted 2 to 1 to pass such an ordinance to regulate any future
mining effort in the town. No, such moves won’t stop frac-sand mining in Wisconsin, but they may
at least mitigate its harm. Procore finally pulled out because of the
resistance, says Glass, adding that the company has since returned with
different personnel to try opening a mine near where she lives.

“It takes 1.2 acres per
person per year to feed every person in this country,” says Lisa Norberg. “And
the little township that I live in, we have 9,000 acres that are for farm use.
So if we just close our eyes and bend over and let the mining companies come
in, we’ll have thousands of people we can’t feed.”

Food or frac-sand: it’s a
decision of vital importance across the country, but one most Americans don’t
even realize is being made — largely by multinational corporations and
dwindling numbers of yeoman farmers in what some in this country would call
“the real America.” Most of us know nothing about these choices, but if the
mining corporations have their way, we will soon enough — when we check out
prices at the supermarket or grocery store. We’ll know it too, as global
climate change continues to turn Wisconsin
winters balmy and supercharge wild weather across the country.

While bucolic landscapes
disappear, aquifers are fouled, and countless farms across rural Wisconsin morph into industrial wastelands, Lisa’s sons
continue to work the Norberg’s land, just as their father once did. So does
Brian’s nephew, 32-year-old Matthew, who took me on a jolting ride across his
fields. The next time I’m in town, he assured me, we’ll visit places in the
hills where water feeds into springs. Yes, you can drink the water there. It’s
still the purest imaginable. Under the circumstances, though, no one knows for
how long.

Ellen Cantarow’s work on
Israel/Palestine has been widely published for over 30 years. Her long-time
concern with climate change has led her to investigate the global depredations
of oil and gas corporations at
TomDispatch.
Many thanks to Wisconsin filmmaker Jim Tittle,
whose
documentary, “The Price of Sand,”
will appear in August 2012, and who shared both his interviewees and his time
for this article.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
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Copyright 2012 Ellen Cantarow

Image by Thatoneguy89, licensed under Creative Commons.

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