The recent boom in hydrofracking for natural gas and oil has resulted in a little-reported side boom—a sand-rush in western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota, where we just happen to have the nation’s richest, most accessible supply of the high-quality silica sand required for fracking operations.
Unfortunately, most of that silica sand lies beneath our beautiful wooded hills and fertile farmland, and within agricultural and residential communities, all of which are now being ripped apart by sand mines interests eager to get at the riches below. This open pit mining is, in many respects, similar to the mountaintop removal going on in Appalachian coal country—except that here, it’s hilltop and farm field removal. The net effect on our landscape, natural resources and communities is quickly becoming devastating. In the past few months, the sand rush has come to my own rural neighborhood in Dunn County, Wisconsin, which is about an hour east of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Like many residents in Dunn County, I’m concerned about the speed and intensity with which frac-sand mining interests are moving into our area. The proposals and applications for mines and related infrastructure are coming in so fast (our region has seen dozens just in the past few months), most small towns have been totally overwhelmed. Organizations trying to map and report all the activity literally cannot keep up with the incoming data.
Attend the presentations where these land prospectors and mining-company reps make their case, and you’ll hear a lot of vague reassurances. They say that the traffic, noise, water impacts, air pollution and carcinogenic silica-sand dust “won’t be a problem.” They’ll be “good neighbors,” they say, and leave everything better than it was before. The open-pit mines will eventually be “reclaimed,” they say, and in the meantime, the development will spur job growth and other economic boons.
Those of us who have been researching the industry and looking at similar developments in communities where this activity is underway see plenty of reason to doubt those reassurances. We also question whether this glut of mining-related activity could wind up squelching the kind of economic development that would do our area a lot more good over the long haul.