Posts

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 2

Ludington State Park, Sargent Sand’s Mine, and US Silica and Sylvania Minerals
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

When it comes to high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), frac sand mining may be the most neglected aspect of the industry’s footprint. (HVHF demand on a per-well basis is increasing by 8% per year.)

To help fill this gap I decided to head out on the road to visit, photograph, and listen to the residents of this country’s primary frac sand communities. This multimedia perspective is part of our ongoing effort to map and quantify the effects of silica sand mining on communities, agriculture, wildlife, ecosystem services, and watersheds more broadly. Below is my follow up attempt to give The FracTracker Alliance community a sense of what residents are hearing, seeing, and saying about the silica sand mining industry writ large, through a tour of 7 sand mining communities – part 2. Read part 1.

Monroe County, MI

Monroe County, Michigan is approximately 22 miles south on I-75 from downtown Detroit with similar demographic differences to the Chicago-LaSalle County, IL comparison we made during the first part of this series. South Rockwood lies along the Northeastern edge of Monroe County and the Monroe-Wayne County border, and is consequently at the intersection of Detroit’s sprawl and rural Michigan.

Monroe County and nearly all of South Rockwood is underlain by one of the purest sandstone formations in North America. The Sylvanian Sandstone formation lies beneath 20% of Monroe County stretching from the aforementioned Wayne County border south-southwest to Lucas County, OH (Fig. 1). It is this formation that mining stalwarts such as US Silica and the appropriately named Sylvanian Minerals are mining for frac sands. Not only is the silica pure, but it is also extremely close to the surface. The region, conveniently, is situated at the crossroads of numerous rail lines capable of transporting the sand to shale plays in the east and North Dakota alike.

US Silica and Sylvanian Minerals are neighbors at the corner of Ready and Armstrong Roads in South Rockwood, with the former adjacent to I-75’s southbound lanes (Fig. 2). As of fall 2011, Sylvanian Minerals hadn’t even broken ground on its initial stab at mining frac sands. Presently the two firms have altered nearly 650 acres, or 40% of the community, with the potential to mine an additional 494 acres. These plans suggest that these two companies could collectively alter 72% of the community’s topography.

This domination of the landscape and commerce concerns many South Rockwood citizens including Sylvanian’s immediate neighbor Doug Wood, who has been the industry’s primary citizen watchdog over the last couple years (photo below).

Mr. Wood was generous enough to let us climb to the top of his barn to snap some photos of the mine. Mr. Wood witnessed the foundation of his home become compromised by the numerous blasting events down in Sylvanian’s mine, and only recently found out that the collective activity at the mines is going to force exit 26 off I-75 to be rerouted to Ready Road, converting this sleepy road into the primary entrance/exit for mine-related traffic. In addition, with the approval of Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, US Silica’s Telegraph Road Mine proposal has Mr. Wood and his neighbors worried about the safety of their families, the air pollution they inhale from the dust and potentially airborne silica, and the truck traffic related noise, which will all undoubtedly influence their health and quality of life.

The primary take-home message from this stop on my tour was that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg with respect to the potential of frac sand mining to literally and figuratively alter communities. Other affected areas such as South Rockwood could learn quite a bit from the likes of LaSalle County, IL residents Anna Mattes, Tom Skomski, and Ashley Williams.

On to the dunes of Western Michigan and Ludington State Park!

Ludington State Park and Sargent Sand’s Mine

After several days in Grand Rapids, I traveled to Ludington State Park in Michigan (see Fig 4 below), along with documentarian/drone pilot Tom Gunnels and Kent County Water Conservation’s Stephanie Mabie. Our destination was the camp of Linda and Ron Daul, the residents spearheading an effort to make Sargent Sand more accountable and transparent in its mining operations. There camp is also located within and adjacent to one of the most sensitive ecosystems in North America.

This is a documentary produced by Tom Gunnels and his Hive•Mind team that incorporated interviews and drone footage from our Ludington/Sargent Sand mine tour August, 2015.

Ms. Daul was kind enough to organize a tour of the mine, Ludington State Park, and northern hardwood forest for us, as well as journalist Aaron Selbig, who produced a piece on the tour for Interlochen Public Radio. The scenery sans the sand mining infrastructure, noise, and related truck traffic was beautiful in this little corner of Michigan roughly half way between Grand Rapids and Traverse City.

Great Lakes sand dunes

Michigan’s unique and threatened dune ecosystems – and associated Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) “plains” or “barrens” ecosystem1 – comprise of 116 square miles of coastline along Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, they are simultaneously deprived of the fire regimes they require to regenerate, and are targets for the production of frac sands with Ludington State Park being the primary example. This makes the feasibility of reclaiming original plant communities dubious at best. (There have been mixed results associated with reclamation efforts, for example, at the former Rosy Mound Standard Sand Corporation’s mine 80 miles due south in Grand Haven, see Fig. 5.)

The largest obstacle to reclamation of sand mines along Lake Michigan is the inability of practitioners to document and replicate the many “microenvironments,” which as Peterson and Dersch pointed out:

…are the small environments created by differences in temperature, moisture, and light intensity within the sand dune ecosystem. Examination of these small environments is essential to a clear understanding of the ‘whole’ ecosystem. The diversity of organisms in sand dune areas is made possible by the variety of habitats found in relatively small areas. Any alteration of the dune which homogenizes the ecosystem will allow less diversity of plants and animals.

The Great Lakes dune complex requires perennial vegetation, wind, and sand for continued formation and stabilization with a complex – and specifically adapted – mosaic of lichens, fungi, mosses, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees arranged in a complicated and multi-layered manner across much of Western Michigan’s lakeshore. As Michigan’s DNR put it:

Without sand dune plants, the integrity and preservation of a stable dune complex cannot exist.

In combination with the Michigan Supreme Court’s constant fiddling of the intent and letter of mineral extraction law, namely the “very serious consequences” clause in House Bill 4746 (2011), you have the makings of a scenario that could eliminate upwards of 16 square miles of Michigan’s critical dunes in the coming years or 9-14% of the entire complex.2

Examples of this unique situation and the threats from Sargent Sand’s expansion include this dune, which is among the largest in Ludington State Park’s 2,820 acres. The Ludington Dunes are also home to the threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) with the LSP encompassing one of the world’s two largest populations of this species according to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. Interestingly, the US Fish & Wildlife Service does not explicitly or implicitly list sand mining as one of their reasons why the species is threatened.

In addition to Pitcher’s Thistle, systems – like those found along the western edge of Michigan – are home to more than 15 endemic, or nearly so, plant species such as:

  • Wormwood (Artemisia campestris, aka the source of Absinthe),
  • The early colonizer sea-rocket (Cakile edentula),
  • Clustered Broom-Rape (Orobanche fasciculata),
  • Harebell (Cakile edentula, at the edge of Sargent Sand’s Ludington mine), and
  • Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), and the species most responsible for dune stabilization Marram Grass (Ammophila sp.).

Additionally, these dunes are critical to the life-cycles of more than 10 different species of birds, reptiles, and herbivores including the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, Eastern Box Turtle, American Goldfinch, and everybody’s favorite, the White-Tailed Deer.

Table 1. Number of Threatened, Endangered, and Rare Plant Species within Western Michigan’s Dune Complex

Criteria # of Species within Michigan’s Dune Complex
Michigan Threatened Species List 72
Michigan Endangered Species List 7
Michigan Rare Species List 3
Extinct 4
US Endangered Species List 1
US Threatened Species List 11

Modified from State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey Division, 1979.

Finally, it is of importance to mention the final stage of dune succession are the beech-maple forests, which take an estimated 1,000 years to be achieved according to Jerry Olson (1958). With that said let’s take a look at some of the pictures and testimonial I gathered during my trip to The Great Lake(s) State…

The Photos

A. Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica, South Rockwood, Monroe County, MI from Doug Wood’s barn

The Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica Mine Complex, South Rockwood, Monroe County, MI. 7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months - Part 2

Location where below photos were taken, showing the Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica Mine Complex, South Rockwood, Monroe County, MI

B. Ludington State Park and Sargent Sand’s Silica Sand Mine, Ludington, Mason County, MI

Ecosystems and Native Plants of Ludington State Park, Mason County, MI (16 images, 11 species)

Sargent Sand and Ludington State Park photography Point-Of-View and Tom Gunnel's Drone Flight Path

Sargent Sand and Ludington State Park photography point-of-view and Tom Gunnel’s drone flight path

Ecosystems (8 images, 3 ecosystems within or adjacent to the mine)

C. Eastern Mine Point-Of-View

Active mine operations and reclaimed parcels (8 images)

D. Ludington State Park Point-Of-View

Overburden stockpile, haul roads, and grain separator (7 images)

E. Drone Screenshots Courtesy of documentarian Tom Gunnels at Hive•Mind

Testimonials

Doug and Dawn Wood, South Rockwood, MI

The cards are definitely stacked against you when there is a silica quarry right next door to your dream home/property. We toiled for years to green it up with trees and grass, a labor of love for our “place in the country”. I mean, what’s not to love about semi-truck traffic, air pollution, house tremors not to mention plummeting property values! Since South Rockwood village annexed the quarry in 2010, placing a quarry wall literally 300 feet from my home, we deal with noise of crushers, loaders, drilling for blasting, and blasting. All the while we are left to wonder what kind of garbage we are inhaling since there seems to be NO REGULATIONS, AIR MONITORING OR DUST CONTROL MEASURES AT ANY TIME!! And if that isn’t enough, the village wants to relocate the freeway ramps to our road for the quarry’s trucking convenience.

Al (Chip) Henning, Ludington, MI

Sargent Sand Company has owned this site since the 1920s. The Big Sable Dune Complex is roughly twice the size of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and includes the Nordhouse Federal Wilderness. If Sargent completes their mining as projected over the next 30-40 years, the Ludington Dunes (about 40% of the Complex) will be 60-70% destroyed/mined/removed, sent primarily to Pennsylvania for hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale formation. Sargent has removed 10-15% of the Ludington Dunes, to date, and faces permit renewal in January 2016. My family owns several properties which abut Ludington State Park, whose lands surround the Sargent property narrowly on three sides. Our property lies 1200 feet from the Sargent operations at closest approach; aside from the unsustainable removal of the sands, the noise from Sargent’s 24-7-365 operations is frequently intolerable.

Linda Bergles Daul, Ludington, MI

Fracking sand is mined from ancient geological sand deposits, extremely rare across the globe.   In Michigan, the Sargent Sand – Ludington (State Park) Site, on the west coastline of Lake Michigan, enjoys a controversial, grandfathered permit to mine irreplaceable sand in critical dunes for horizontal fracking application. When the Sargent Sand mine is operating, the peaceful retreat of Hamlin Lake might as well be a downtown Chicago construction site, sharing heavy truck traffic, air pollution and mine numbing noise with our Pure Michigan visitors. The beauty and majesty of Ludington State Park has enriched my life. The critical dunes are one of Michigan and LSP’s most spectacular natural features – they also are one of our most fragile! The dunes are a phenomenon unique to the State of Michigan and yet we allow permitted critical sand dune mining right next to LSP. Sargent sand expansion towards LSP resulting in the removal of 200 year-old stabilizing trees, dredging to create artificial lakes, disregard for wildlife and the critical dune ecosystem, should be addressed within LSP master plans. I would like to see a world-class, university associated educational program established at Ludington State Park, addressing dune ecosystems. The LSP master plan should deliberately study the impact of Sargent Sand Mining operation and propose a broader vision that will consolidate the park in a way that preserves its beauty for future generations. [Furthermore] The State of Michigan Sec. 35302 The legislature finds that: (a) The critical dune areas of this state are a unique, irreplaceable, economic, scientific, geological, scenic, botanical, educational, agricultural, and ecological benefits to the people of this state and to people from other states and countries who visit this resource. EXCEPT if the activity is involved in sand dune mining as defined in part 637.

Julia Chambers, President of A Few Friends for the Environment of the World (AFFEW), Ludington, MI

Sargent Sands sand mining has been viewed as mainly negative in the Ludington-Mason County community. This company was “dormant” until hydraulic fracturing became somewhat popular.   Most citizens and visitors do not like to see the dunes removed in this area so close to the Ludington State Park.   Destruction of critical dune area and possible endangered plants are the main concerns. Other impacts to this community include the immense noise created by the mining for families with homes by the mine and all the trucks going through town to the freight trains. Another issue is the wear on the roads. Also mentioned to me was the time spent waiting at the train crossings because of the sand being transported to other areas via trains. I really haven’t heard any positive comments. My guess would be that the mining creates jobs for the truckers, train workers, and of course the employees of the company. As far as in the future there are rumors that Sargent Sands will continue to mine and then make the area a destination place with condos around the lake they created. This is turn will bring more traffic to the dunes, not a sustainable idea!

Glenn Walquist, DVM, Country Veterinary Clinic, Ludington, MI

I really do “get it” in understanding that jobs are critically important for our State. Mouths are fed, bills are paid, colleges are attended. But the damage to Ludington left in Sargent Sands’ wake when it is done here someday will be permanent scars from the removal of Sand Dunes so rare and so beautiful, that I’m certain that we will all regret what we allowed to happen while on “our watch”. I believe that Ludington’s precious Sand Dunes are not really “ours”…to destroy or allow to be taken. They are timeless natural resources that we have simply been granted stewardship over by our own forefathers and mothers. Allow our children and great grandchildren the privilege of seeing and enjoying what we ourselves have been lucky enough to have seen and touched. “As a native Michigander and 13 year resident of Ludington, I can confidently tell anybody willing to listen that Sargent Sands is (at this very moment) irreversibly destroying one of Michigan’s last remaining precious and timeless natural resources. We… OWE IT to generations that follow us, the right to marvel at and enjoy what is one of this Country’s uniquely beautiful natural treasures… Ludington’s sand dunes. I ignorantly believed, at first, when Sargent Sands began mining sand again here that it would be something akin to raking one’s yard of leaves. When I had an opportunity to hike their mining operation’s perimeter, I witnessed what looks like strip-mining devastation. It’s saddens me that I was complicit (when I myself purchased some sand for my backyard from Sargent’s) but I am more frightened that our own DEQ (who should have known better) would have ever approved such disfiguring and permanent alteration to something so rarely seen in nature. I myself have marveled…at something that I believe only a few places on Earth possess…sand dunes so unique, so beautiful and so rarely seen (and…FREE to hike and to look at !) along a freshwater lake that happens to be what is increasingly being recognized as our Country’s lifeblood. In the Winter here when it snows, I often wonder how many people in other countries can even imagine what snow blowing in sand dunes looks like…the beautiful swirling mixture of sandy snow wrapping around dune grasses that stretch as far as the eyes can see –but now being trucked away. I ask our State, especially in light of Flint’s man made devastation, PLEASE do not allow this to continue when Sargent Sands’ permit expires in December of 2016. This sand mining destruction cannot be undone.

Additional Readings

Buckler, W.R., 1978. Dune Type Inventory and Barrier Dune Classification Study of Michigan’s Lake Michigan Shore, in: Resources, M.D.o.N. (Ed.). Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, MI.

Carlisle, N., 1960. Michigan’s Marching Dunes. Coronet 48, 159.

Cowles, H.C., 1899. The Ecological Relationship of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan. Botanical Gazette 27, 95-117, 167-202, 281-308, 361-391.

Cressey, G.B., 1928. The Indian sand Dunes and Shore Lines of the Lake Michigan Basin, The Geographic Society of Chicago Bulletin. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Daniel, G., 1977. Dune Country A Guide For Hikers and Naturalists. The Shallow Press Inc., Chicago, IL.

Dorr, J.A., Eschman, D.F., 1970. The Geology of Michigan. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.

Kelley, R.W., 1962. Sand Dunes, A Geologic Sketch, in: Conservation, M.D.o. (Ed.). Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, MI.

Koske, R.E., Sutton, J.C., Sheppard, B.R., Ecology of Endogone in Lake Huron Sand Dunes. Canadian Journal of Botany 53, 87-93.

Odum, E.P., 1971. Fundamentals of Ecology. W.B. Sanders Company, Philadelphia, PA.

Olson, J.S., 1958. Rates of succession and soil changes on Southern Lake Michigan sand dunes. Botanical Gazette 119, 125-170.

Peterson, J.M., Dersch, E., 1981. A Guide To Sand Dune and Coastal Ecosystem Functional Relationships, in: Service, M.C.E. (Ed.). Michigan Cooperative Extension Service, Lansing, MI.

Ranwell, D.S., 1972. Ecology of Salt Marshes and Sand Dunes. Chapman and Hall, London, UK.

Reinking, R.L., Gephart, D.G., 1978. Pattern of Revegetation of a Shoreline Dune Area, Allegan County, Michigan. The Michigan Academician 11.

Thompson, P.W., 1967. Vegetation and Common Plants of Sleeping Bear. Cranbrook Institute of Science, Bloomfield Hills, MI.

Footnotes for 7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 2

  1. Michigan’s DNR describes this ecosystem as having “always contained few large trees and little or no old growth. A forest where soils are dry and the vegetation sparse, it is called a barrens. A forest periodically swept by raging fires, only to spring back, fresh and revitalized. A forest which is amazingly productive and biologically diverse, providing homes for numerous plants and animals, many of them [endemic]. Today [we are]…seeking to extract its resources, enjoy its beauty, explore its secrets, and preserve its life. The jack pine forests can exist, only if we care.”
  2. As Michigan State researchers pointed out the Michigan coastal dune ecosystem exists in small fragments along the Atlantic Coastal Plain but nowhere else in the world

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 1

An Exploration of Sand Mining Impacts: Lasalle County, IL by way of Chicago’s South Side
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

When it comes to high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), frac sand mining may be the most neglected aspect of the industry’s footprint. (HVHF demand on a per-well basis is increasing by 8% per year.)

To capture how this industry is changing several sand mining communities, I recently took a road trip to visit, photograph, and listen to the residents of this country’s primary frac sand areas. In total, I visited 7 sand mining communities in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

This multimedia perspective is part of our ongoing effort to map and quantify the effects of silica sand mining on people, agriculture, wildlife, ecosystem services, and watersheds more broadly. Below is my attempt to give the FracTracker community a sense of what residents are hearing, seeing, and saying about the silica sand mining industry writ large.

Chicago’s South Side

Before heading to Illinois’ frac sand epicenter of Lasalle County, I couldn’t help but catch the South Shore Line out of Millennium Station. This station can be seen as you head south to the Hegewisch neighborhood on Chicago’s impoverished South Side, an area of greater Chicago-Gary, Indiana that has largely been forgotten by politicians in both states. Chicago_KCBX_BP

ChicagoLand_Income_Hardship

Figure 1. Average income per capita and Hardship Index (0-100 with 100 being the worst) for Chicago’s neighborhoods with Hegewisch highlighted in the city’s southeast corner.

This situation is a shame because collectively Hegewisch and the city of Whiting, IN are home to one of the largest – and getting larger – collections of oil refineries and oil sands infrastructure in the United States.

For an estimation of how difficult it is to live in various Chicago neighborhoods, see Figure 1, left.

This proliferation has not been without its dangers, including a compressor station explosion at BP PLC’s massive1 Whiting Refinery in August 2014. Unfortunately, that incident was just the latest in a long line of mishaps at this facility. The “operational incident,” as BP called it, rocked already stressed neighborhoods like MarkTown, IN – the aborted company town planned for steel maker Clayton Mark. MarkTown is on the National Register of Historic Places and is an example of a community that is being erased from the face of the earth in the name of Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex expansion. For those interested in architecture preservation, MarkTown’s rapid erasure is being conducted by BP itself and in the process we are losing an example of Conservatively Radical architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s distinct English-style Tudor homes and urban planning. Residents speculate BP “may be buying up the properties because of concerns about liability.” The company counters they are just trying to create additional green space for residents.

KCBX_BP_POV

NAmerican_Ports_Refineries

Figure 2. Average daily oil refinery production per day across North America’s 152 Oil Refineries along with North American ports.

Luckily for everyone, operations following the aforementioned recent explosion were only “minimally impacted as a result of the incident and the refinery continue[d] to produce products for customers.” However, the more chronic concern is the tight supply-demand relationship between BP’s refinery and their Koch KCBX neighbor. Koch has made repeated headlines – and many neighbors turned enemies including the Southeast Environmental Task Force and its fearless leader Peggy Salazar – with its handling of the refinery’s annual production of 600,000 tons of petcoke a development Chicago Magazine called Mountains of Trouble. Petcoke is a byproduct of the refinery’s increased acceptance and processing of tar sands from Alberta Canada. Levels of production are likely to increase given BP’s completion in November 2014 of a “$4-billion revamp…to boost its intake of Canadian crude oil from 85,000 bpd to 350,000 bpd.”

Given how interconnected the hydrocarbon industry is, I thought it would be worth collecting some photos of the aforementioned infrastructure. When I saw that Koch KCBX’s terminal was also storing large amounts of silica sand, however, the connection between my next target(s) in LaSalle County was made even more obvious.

LaSalle vs. Chicagoland: A Tale of Two Worlds

Lasalle County, Illinois is situated approximately 50-60 miles south-southwest of Chicago. When you try to compare demographics and commerce, however, it is worlds away.

Chicagoland encompasses nearly 10,900 square miles – 9.5 times the area of Lasalle County. While Chicago’s population is expanding by 95,681 people per year, LaSalle’s is shrinking by 2,734 per year (Table 1). Chicagoans, though not South Siders, are making more than two times that of LaSalle County residents (with the latter actually falling nearly $4,700 below the state average). Predictably the demographics of Chicago reflect more and more those of the US, while LaSalle is typical of rural America with a population that is 93% white and only 3.3% foreign born. Thirty-five percent of Chicagoans are likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree, while only 16% of LaSalle County residents are likely to do so. Rates of poverty and more specifically child poverty, on the other hand, are significantly higher in Chicago. Finally, LaSalle is one of the country’s preeminent farming counties; it ranks #4 in the state and #126 nationally thanks to the value of agricultural commodities produced amounting to $448.5 million net of farm subsidies. See Table 1.

La Salle County, IL Silica Sand Mines & St. Peter Sandstone Geology

Figure 3. La Salle County, IL Silica Sand Mines & St. Peter Sandstone Geology

Chicago_Vs_LaSalleCounty_Comparison

Table 1. Chicagoland and LaSalle County, Illinois summary demographics, economic prosperity, and agricultural productivity.

Photos from the Tour

The above contrast was made crystal clear as I traveled down Interstate 80 westbound towards exit 90 and LaSalle’s County seat Ottawa (pop. 18,562). Upon arriving in Ottawa I drove west on Madison Street to the first target of our expedition: U.S. Silica Company’s mine and processing facility at the corner of Madison Boyce Memorial Drive. Upon arriving, however, it became clear that I would not find a suitable location to photograph the company’s mine; the perimeter had been fenced off and mounded up to the tune of 10-15 feet. So I got back in our rental car and drove to the mine’s southern perimeter adjacent to the Bear Den Bar and Grill and the Vine St.-Fern St.-15th Ave. neighborhood where there was clear line of site. It was here that I got some of the best photos of the mine’s scale and scope with respect to land-use, reclamation, and hydrology.

US_Silica_OttawaCo

Below is a sample of some of those images as well as several I took further down Route 34 between U.S. Silica’s active mine and a “reclaimed” Ottawa Silica Co. mine on the banks of the Illinois River.

After snapping several hundred shots of these two mines I headed to the I & M Canal State Trail between Utica and Ottawa emanating out of Buffalo Rock State Park and hiked east towards the Northern edge of U.S. Silica’s mine alongside a CSX railroad and recently constructed spur feeding into the mine’s loading terminal. The hope was that I would get a closer look at the mine but it turned out the angle was different but not better.

From the back of U.S. Silica’s Ottawa mine I traveled approximately 7 miles west to Unimin’s North Utica mine and a short dirt road off of 2803rd Road on the northern edge of the mine.

Unimin_NorthUtica

It was here that I photographed the mine’s reclamation plots, active mine pits, and developing water transport mechanisms. However, more importantly it was from here that I noticed off in the distance a bright red silica sand grain-size separator.

Curiously I did not – but do now – have this nascent and relatively small mine posted on our Frac Sands Mines and Related Facilities map at the time. Upon arriving at this site I found that the mine was owned and operated by a company called Northern White Sand a small mom & pop operation out of Utica, IL.

Unimin_NorthUtica_NorthernWhiteSand

The photos I took of this mine were primarily from atop a vegetated berm to the southwest of the mine’s primary footprint. This vantage point allowed us to get some great shots of the types of infrastructure/equipment typical of this sized mine including the aforementioned modular grain-size separator, conveyor belts, retention ponds, and the pyramid-like piles of powdery white silica sand so desired by the HVHF industry.

Our final stop on the LaSalle County silica sand mine tour landed us in Troy Grove 13 miles north of North Utica by way of Interstate 39. It was here that I visited several vantage points around Technisand’s MBI Manley Bros. silica mine. The expanse included the site’s mixture of old and new processing infrastructure, what appeared to be an alluvial fan derived from sand waste and associated wetland, and the mine’s far reaches alongside a Chicago and North Western Transportation Company (CNW) railroad.

Resident Testimonials

So now that I have outlined my tour of La Salle County I thought it would be helpful to share some of the stories residents told me during my travels and later by way of email.

Anna Mattes – La Salle County, IL

I live in LaSalle County, Illinois where I have prime farmland and Starved Rock State Park… the crown jewel of Illinois. I already have a fine farming industry and plenty of tourism as Starved Rock is visited by two million people annually. LaSalle County already has forty two quarries, gravel pits and sand mines. If I allow anymore the county will look as though it has been bombed. Empty sand pits will never produce food ever again. No amount of reclamation will restore this land to be productive…Each mine uses one million gallons of water daily. The LaSalle County Board has enlisted the USGS to do a hydrology study to determine how much water I have in our aquifer for municipalities and farming. Presently I have a moratorium in place on sand mines thru July 2016 and I hope forever. As a woman, wife and mother I am charged with the continuity of life. It is my job, profession, to raise healthy children, make a healthy breakfast and pack a nutritious lunch for my husband so he can do his job, and it generally falls to women to care for the elderly in families. With out clean air, pure water, healthy food what is the quality of life? Fracking is a dangerous business and I need to take better care of Planet Earth. Please do your part, I’m a Master Gardener and I’m doing my part.

Thomas Skomski – Wedron, IL

I am a resident of Wedron who has been severely impacted by Wedron Silica; and I want to report that there are many more problems associated with the influx of sand mines in LaSalle Co. than named in your recent article. In order to be fair to other residents who will be negatively affected by proximity to any sand mine I believe it is important to inform them and all concerned on the unmentioned problems associated with living near a sand mine. For example: the mountains of sand that are produced migrate everywhere the wind takes the particles. As I all know the winds are frequently fierce in this part of the country. One neighbor describes how in the morning when he sets his coffee cup down on his front porch and goes into his house to get the newspaper that he returns to find a layer of white sand covering his coffee. Another neighbor vacuums the sand off her living room rugs weekly while her husband regularly has to clean out sand-filled gutters. I do know that enabling pollutants on private property is technically criminal trespass. At the last EPA hearing in Wedron a retired mine employee admitted that Wedron Silica uses 100 million gallons of water per hour in sand processing. Some of this water is recycled. Since I have not confirmed those statistics, I prefer sticking to the fact that the mine has reversed the flow of the ground water. Who knows what the unseen consequences of that reversal might be? The toxic plume that Wedron Silica is in part responsible for creating migrates wherever the ground water moves. As a result of the threat of my well being poisoned my land, 23 acres has been devalued by the county to $1.00. All my five buildings are worth 40% of what they were before nine wells were poisoned in Wedron. Those wells were so toxic with benzene that water came out of the faucet orange and you could not breath it let alone use it to wash anything. Wedron Silica has begun buying homes in Wedron which will allow them to pursue their wealth with no concerns- BUT what about the water which I all know is in limited supply and susceptible to being polluted? So in summary, please include the human costs involved in a mine opening near you. My wife and I moved to the country to enjoy the solitude and quiet of living on a farm in our retirement years. The quality of our lives has been diminished, in addition the noise is disturbing; trains come in at all hours incessantly blowing their horns and the semi traffic is constant. Finally, I have heard a lot of what I consider negative criticism about the EPA. Having experienced this monumental problem directly it is perfectly clear to me that without the resources of a pro-environment organization I would be hard pressed to stand up to a corporation with multi billions in assets.

Ashley Williams – LaSalle County, IL

The nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has quickly transformed into a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, IL. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate, endangering the health and safety of the people and local environment. Our precious life vessels: our air, water, and soil are under siege by a nexus of power that seeks to intimidate us into quiet submission, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit by and let that happen.

Footnote

  1. This facility alone processes nearly 2% of all oil in North America on a daily basis. This facility is the seventh-largest refinery in the United States and the largest outside of the Gulf Coast.
Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

West Central Wisconsin’s Landscape and What Silica Sand Mining Has Done to It

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and Elliott Kurtz, GIS Intern

The Great Lakes may see a major increase in the number of sand mines developed in the name of fracking. What impacts has the area already seen, and does future development mean for the region’s ecosystem and land use?

Introduction

Sand is a necessary component of today’s oil and gas extraction industry for use in propping open the cracks that fracking creates. Silica sand is a highly sought after proppant for this purpose and often found in Wisconsin and Michigan. At the present time here in Ohio our Utica laterals are averaging 4,300-5,000 tons of silica sand or “proppant” with demand increasing by 85+ tons per lateral per quarter.

Wisconsin’s 125+ silica sand mines and processing facilities are spread out across 15,739 square miles of the state’s West Central region, adjacent to the Minnesota border in the Northern Mississippi Valley. These mines have dramatically altered the landscape while generating proppant for the shale gas industry; approximately 2.5 million tons of sand are extracted per mine. The length of the average shale gas lateral well grows by > 50 feet per quarter, so we expect silica sand usage will grow from 5,500 tons to > 8,000 tons per lateral. To meet this increase in demand, additional mines are being proposed near the Great Lakes.

Migration of the sand industry from the Southwest to the Great Lakes in search of this silica sand has had a large impact on regional ecosystem productivity and watershed resilience[1]. The land in the Great Lakes region is more productive, from a soil and biomass perspective; much of the Southwest sandstone geology is dominated by scrublands that have accrue plant biomass at much slower rates, while the Great Lakes host productive forests and agricultural land. Great Lakes ecosystems produce 1.92 times more soil organic matter and 1.46 times more perennial biomass than Southwestern ecosystems.

Effects on the Great Lakes

Quantifying what the landscape looks like now will serve as a baseline for understanding how the silica sand industry will have altered the overall landscape, much like Appalachia is doing today in the aftermath of strip-mining and Mountaintop Removal Mining[2]. West Central Wisconsin (WCW) has a chance to learn from the admittedly short-cited and myopic mistakes of their brethren across the coalfields of Appalachia.

Herein we aim to present numbers speaking to the diversity and distribution of WCW’s “working landscape” across eight types of land-cover. We will then present numbers speaking to how the silica mining industry has altered the region to date and what these numbers mean for reclamation. The folks at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy , and Management describe “Working Landscapes” as follows:

a broad term that expresses the goal of fostering landscapes where production of market goods and ecosystem services is mutually reinforcing. It means working with people as partners to create landscapes and ecosystems that benefit humanity and the planet… A goal is finding management and policy synergies—practices and policies that enhance production of multiple ecosystem services as well as goods for the market…Collaborative management processes can help discover synergies and create better decisions and policy. Incentives can help private landowners support management that benefits society.

Methods

We used the 1993 WISCLAND satellite imagery to determine how WCW’s landscape is partitioned and then we applied these data to an updated inventory of silica sand mine boundaries to determine what existed within their boundaries prior to mining. The point locations of Wisconsin’s current inventory of silica sand mines was determined using the “Geocode Address” function in ArcMap 10.2 using the Composite_US Address Locator. Addresses were drawn from mine inventory information originally maintained by the West Central WI Regional Planning Commission (WCWRPC) and now managed by the WI Department of Natural Resources’ Mines, pits and quarries division. Meanwhile current mine extent boundary polygons were determined using one of three satellite data-sets:

  1. 2013 imagery from the USDA National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP),
  2. 2014 ArcMap 10.2 World Imagery, and
  3. 2014 Google Satellite.

What We Found

Land Cover Types Replaced by Silica Sand Mining

Sand-LandEffects

Fig 1. Square mileage of various land cover types replaced by silica sand mining in WCW

Thirty-nine percent of the WCW landscape is currently allocated to forests, 43% to agriculture broadly speaking, and 13% is occupied by various types of wetlands. Open waters occupy 2.6% of the landscape with tertiary uses including barren lands (1.3%), golf courses (0.03%), high and low-density urban areas (0.9%), and miscellaneous shrublands (0.6%) (See Figure 1).

Effects by Land Cover Type

Figure 2. Forest Cover in WCW

Fig 2. Forest Cover in WCW

Figure 3. Agricultural Cover

Fig 3. Agricultural Cover

Figure 4. Open Water & Wetland Cover

Fig 4. Open Water & Wetland Cover

Figure 5. Forested Wetland Cover

Fig 5. Forested Wetland Cover

Figure 6. Lowland Shrub Wetland Cover

Fig 6. Lowland Shrub Wetlands

Figure 7. Miscellaneous Cover

Fig 7. Miscellaneous Cover

Figure 2. The wood in these forests has a current stumpage value of $253-936 million and by way of photosynthesis accumulates 63 to 131 million tons of CO2 and has accumulated 4.8-9.8 billion tons of CO2 if we assumed that on average forests in this region are 65-85 years old. Putting a finer point on WCW forest cover and associated quantifiables is difficult because most of these tracts (2.7 million acres) fall within a catchall category called “Mixed Forest”. Pine (2.3% of the region), Aspen (4.7%), and Oak (3.8%) most of the remaining 1.2 million forested acres with much less sugar (Acer saccharum) and soft (Acer rubrum) maple acreage than we expected scattered in a horseshoe fashion across the Northeastern portion of the study area.

Figure 3. Seven different agricultural land-uses occupy 4.3 million WCW acres with forage crops and grasslands constituting 29% of the region followed by 1.4 million acres of row crops and miscellaneous agricultural activities. Additionally, 2% of WI’s 19,700 cranberry bog acres are within the study area generating $4.02 million worth of cranberries per year. The larger agricultural categories generate $3.2 billion worth of commodities.

Figure 4. Nearly 16% of WCW is characterized by open waters or various types of wetlands with a total area of 2,396 square miles clustered primarily in two Northeast and one Southeast segment. Open waters occupy 398 square miles with forested wetlands – possibly vernal pool-type systems – amounting to 5.4% of the region or 841 square miles. Lowland shrub and emergent/wet meadows occupy 540 and 618 square miles, respectively.

Figure 5. Of the nine types of wetlands present in this region the forested broad-leaved deciduous and emergent/wet meadow variety constitute the largest fraction of the region at 1,107 square miles (7.1% of region). Some percentage of the former would likely be defined by Wisconsin DNR as vernal pools, which do the following according to their Ephemeral Pond program. The WI DNR doesn’t include silica sand mining in its list of 14 threats to vernal pools or potential conservation actions, however.

These ponds are depressions with impeded drainage (usually in forest landscapes), that hold water for a period of time following snowmelt and spring rains but typically dry out by mid-summer…They flourish with productivity during their brief existence and provide critical breeding habitat for certain invertebrates, as well as for many amphibians such as wood frogs and salamanders. They also provide feeding, resting and breeding habitat for songbirds and a source of food for many mammals. Ephemeral ponds contribute in many ways to the biodiversity of a woodlot, forest stand and the larger landscape…they all broadly fit into a community context by the following attributes: their placement in woodlands, isolation, small size, hydrology, length of time they hold water, and composition of the biological community (lacking fish as permanent predators).

Figure 6. Broad-leaved evergreen lowland shrub wetlands constitute ≈2.1% of the region or 319 square miles with most occurring around the Legacy Boggs silica mines and several cranberry operations turned silica mines in Jackson County. Meanwhile broad-leaved deciduous and needle-leaved lowland shrub wetlands are largely outside the current extent of silica sand mining in the region occupying 1.9% of the region with 293 square miles spread out within the northeastern 1/5th of the study area.

Figure 7. Finally, miscellaneous land-covers include 200 square miles of barren land, 145 square miles of low/high intensity urban areas including the cities of Eau Claire (Pop. 67,545) and Stevens Point (Pop. 26,670) as well as towns like Marshfield, Wisconsin Rapids, Merrill, and Rib Mountain-Weston. WCW also hosts 3,204 acres (0.03% of region) worth of golf courses which amounts to roughly 21 courses assuming the average course is 157 acres. Shrublands broadly defined occur throughout 0.6% of the region scattered throughout the southeast corner and north-central sixth of the region, with the both amalgamations poised to experience significant replacement or alteration as they are adjacent to two large silica mine groupings.

Producing Mine Land-Use/Land-Cover Change

To date we have established the current extent of land-use/land-cover change associated with 25 producing silica mines occupying 12 square miles of WCW. These mines have displaced 3 square miles of forests and 7 square miles of agricultural land-cover. These forested tracts accumulated 31,446-64,610 tons of CO2 per year or 2.4-4.9 million tons over the average lifespan of a typical Wisconsin forest. These values equate to the emissions of 144,401-295,956 Wisconsinites or 2.5-5.1% of the state’s population. The annual wood that was once generated on these parcels would have had a market value of $126,097-197,084 per year. Meanwhile the above agricultural lands would be generating roughly $1.5-3.3 million in commodities if they had not been displaced.

However, putting aside measurable market valuations it turns out the most concerning result of this analysis is that these mines have displaces 871 acres of wetlands which equals 11% of all mined lands. This alteration includes 158 acres of formerly forested wetlands, 352 acres of lowland shrub wetlands, and 361 acres of emergent/wet meadows. As we mentioned previously, the chance that these wetlands will be reconstituted to support their original plant and animal assemblages is doubtful.

We know that the St. Peter Sandstone formation is the primary target of the silica sand industry with respect to providing proppant for the shale gas industry. We also know that this formation extend across seven states and approximately 8,884 square miles, with all 91 square miles overlain by wetlands in Wisconsin. To this end carbon-rich grasslands soils or Mollisols, which we discussed earlier, sit atop 36% of the St. Peter Sandstone and given that these soils are alread endangered from past agricultural practices as well as current O&G exploration this is just another example of how soils stand to be dramatically altered by the full extent of the North American Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex. The following IFs would undoubtedly have a dramatic effect on the ability of the ecosystems overlying the St. Peter Sandstone to capture and store CO2 to the extent that they are today not to mention dramatically alter the landscape’s ability to capture, store, and purify precipitation inputs.

  • IF silica sand mining continues at the rate it is on currently
  • IF reclamation continues to result in “very poor stand of grass with some woody plants of very poor quality and little value on the whole for wildlife. Some areas may be reclaimed as crop land, however it is our opinion that substantial inputs such as commercial fertilizer as well as irrigation will be required in most if not all cases in order to produce an average crop.”
  • IF the highly productive temperate forests described above are not reassembled on similar acreage to their extent prior to mining and reclamation is largely to the very poor stands of grass mentione above
    • For example: Great Lakes forests like the ones sitting atop the St. Peter Sandstone capture 20.9 tons of CO2 per acre per year Vs their likely grass/scrublands replacement which capture 10.6-12.8 tons of CO2 per acre per year… You do the math!
  • “None two sites are capable of supporting the growing of food. They grow trees and some cover grass, but that is all. General scientific research says that the reclaimed soils lose up to 75% of their agricultural productivity.”

Quote from a concerned citizen:

I often wonder what it was like before the boom, before fortunes were built on castles of sand and resultant moonscapes stretched as far as the eye could see. In the past few years alone, the nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has become a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, Illinois. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate and threaten thewellbeing of our people and rural ecosystem.

Additional Testimonials

References & Resources

  1. The US Forest Service defined Watershed Resilience as “Over time, all watersheds experience a variety of disturbance events such as fires and floods [and mining]. Resilient watersheds have the ability to recover promptly from such events and even be renewed by them. Much as treating forests can make them more resilient to wildfire, watershed restoration projects can improve watershed resilience to both natural and human disturbances.”
  2. Great example: Virginia Tech’s Powell River Project
Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

Quick Sand: Frack Sand Mining in Wisconsin

Each silica sand mine displaces 871 acres of wetlands and more than 12 square miles of forests and agriculture land in Wisconsin to provide the shale gas industry with fracking proppant.

By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern

Silica sand is used by the oil and gas industry as a way to prop open the fractures made during fracking – and is also referred to as a proppant. The industry’s demand for silica sand is steadily increasing (i.e., 4-5K tons per shale lateral, +86 tons per lateral per quarter), directly affecting the Great Lakes, their ecosystems, and land use. Silica sand is often found in Wisconsin and Michigan, which have felt the effects of increased sand mining demands through altered landscapes, impacted ecosystem productivity, and altering watershed resilience; these impacts will only continue to increase as the demand for silica sand increases.

To better understand frack sand mining’s current and potential effects, FracTracker’s Ted Auch and intern Elliott Kurtz, with generous support from the Save The Hills Alliance, explored mining and land use changes data in West Central Wisconsin (WCW). In their research paper, Auch and Kurtz show the current and future environmental impacts of increased sand mining in WCW in order to supply the oil and gas industry with sand. Not only does this research illustrate what is at risk in the WCW landscape, it also showcases what sand mining has already done to the region.

Key Frack Sand Mining Findings

Land alterations due to silica sand mining in WI

Sixteen percent, or 2,396 square miles, of the West Central Wisconsin (WCW) is made up of wetlands or open waters. These and the other existing WCW landscapes are unquestionably profitable. The forests buffer climate change impacts – to date accumulating between 4.8-9.8 billion tons of CO2 assuming they are 65-85 years old – and have a current stumpage value of $253-936 million.

The 25 producing silica mines in this region occupy 12 square miles of WCW and have already displaced:

  • 3 mi2 of forests
  • 7 mi2 of agricultural land-cover
  • 1.36 mi2 of wetlands (equal to 11% of all mined lands)
    Formerly, these wetlands were one of three types:

    • 18% (158 acres) forested wetlands
    • 41% (353 acres) lowland shrub wetlands, and
    • 41% (361 acres) emergent/wet meadows
Breakdown of the current landscape types near these expanding mines, based on an analysis of satellite imagery

Breakdown of the current landscape types near these expanding mines, based on an analysis of satellite imagery

Why Wisconsin?

There are more than 125 silica sand mines throughout WCW, a stretch of ~16,000 square miles. Previously, the mining industry focused their efforts in Oklahoma and Texas’s Riley, Hickory/Brady, and Old Creek formations, where the land is not as agriculturally or ecologically productive as WCW. Now, more and more mines are being proposed and built in the WCW region. We wanted to determine what this change would mean for such an ecosystem diverse area of Wisconsin – many of which are considered “globally imperiled” or “globally rare” including oak savanna, dry prairies, southern dry-mesic forests, pine barrens, moist cliffs and oak openings.

The St. Peter Sandstone – along with the early Devonian and much smaller Sylvania Sandstone in Southeastern Michigan – is the primary target of the silica sand industry. Carbon-rich grassland soils cover 36% of the St. Peter, where they aid the ecosystem by capturing and sorting 20.9 tons of CO2 per year, as well as purifying precipitation inputs. This ecosystem, amongst many others around sand mining activities, will be dramatically altered if silica sand mining continues at its increasing rate. We will see CO2 capturing levels drop from 20.9 tons to 10.6 tons per acre per year if the highly productive temperate forests are not reassembled and reclaimed to their original acreage, as well as a significant loss (75%) in agricultural productivity on sites that are not reclaimed properly.

Out-of-state mining companies are settling into Wisconsin and displacing the land at a very high rate. As the president of Iowa’s Allamakee County Protectors Ric Zarwell told us by email “Frac sand mining companies do not come from the area where I live.  So efforts to destroy landscapes for frac sand are going to involve Neighbors Opposing Invaders.”

A high demand in silica sand from the shale gas industry will continue to drive this influx of mining companies into WI, providing a potentially collapsed ecosystem in the future. Factors at play include additional – and often much larger – mines under consideration, the average shale gas lateral grows by > 50 feet per quarter, and silica sand usage will grow from 5,500 tons to > 8,000 tons per lateral (i.e., 85 tons per quarter per lateral). Auch and Kurtz’s research paper describes in detail where how much silica sand might be needed in the future, as well as a detailed set of maps depicting land cover and usage in WI.

Sand mining operation in Wisconsin, Photo by Ted Auch, 2013

Chieftain’s Wisconsin Frac Sand Mine Proposal

Potential Land-Cover Change and Ecosystem Services
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Chieftain Metals Corp, a relatively large mining company, recently proposed to develop nine silica sand mines in the Barron County, Wisconsin towns of Sioux Creek and Dovre, as well as adjacent Public Land Survey System (PLSS) parcels.1 Here we show that the land that Chieftain is proposing to convert into one of the state’s largest collections of adjacent silica sand mine acreage (like the one shown above) currently generates $8-15 million in ecosystem services and commodities per year.

Background

Sand, often silica sand, is used in the hydraulic fracturing process of oil and gas drilling. Including sand in the frac fluid helps to prop open the small cracks that are created during fracking so that the hydrocarbons can be more easily drawn into the well. To supply the growth in the oil and gas industry, bigger and bigger sand mines are being developed with four factors being critical to this expansion:

A Map of the St. Peter Silica Sandstone Geology Across the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma

Figure 1. St. Peter Silica Sandstone geology across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma

  1. The average shale lateral is getting longer by 50-55 feet per quarter and the average silica sand demand is increasing in parallel by 85-90 tons per lateral per quarter with current averages per lateral in the range of 3,500-4,300 tons (Note: These figures stem from an analysis of 780 and 1,120 Ohio and West Virginia laterals, respectively.)
  2. The average silica sand mine proposal throughout the Great Lakes is increasing exponentially.
  3. The average sand mine is targeted at non-agricultural parcels disproportionately. As an example we looked at one of the primary Wisconsin frac sand counties and found that even though 6% of the county was forested and nearly 50% was in some form of agriculture, 98.2% of the frac sand mine area was forested prior to mining. An already fragmented landscape with respect to threatened or endangered ecosystems is becoming even more so, as the price of sand hits an exponential phase and the silica industry all but abandons its positions in Oklahoma and Texas.
  4. The primary geology of interest to the silica sand industry is the St. Peter Silica sandstone geology, which includes much of Southern Minnesota, West Central and Southern Wisconsin, as well as significant sections of Missouri and Arkansas (Figure 1).

Sand Mine Proposal Land Use Footprint

To quantify the land-cover/land-use change (LULC) of these proposed mines, we extracted the parcel locations from WI DNR’s Surface Water Data Viewer using the company’s construction permit.2 These parcels encompass approximately 5,671 acres along the edge of what US Forest Service calls the Eastern Broadleaf Forest (Minnesota & NE Iowa Morainal, Oak Savannah) and Laurentian Mixed Forest provinces (Southern Superior Uplands).

Using a now-defunct WI DNR program called WISCLAND we were able to determine the land-cover within the aforementioned acreage in an effort to determine potential changes in ecosystem services and watershed resilience. The WISCLAND satellite imagery was generated in 1992, so it provided a nice snapshot of what this region’s landscape looks like absent silica sand mining.

In our joining of the PLSS and WISCLAND data we determined that 2,684 acres (47%) are currently covered by forests, namely:

Land-Cover and # of Polygons across ten land-cover catagories across the Chieftain Silica Mine Proposal

Figure 2. Chieftain silica sand mine proposal’s land-cover across 5,671 acres in Barron County, WI

Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Forest Cover Across Six Forest Types

Figure 3. Chieftain proposal’s forest cover across 5,671 acres in Barron County, WI

Forage crops and grasslands occupy 2,010 acres (35%) across 331 polygons averaging 7 acres scattered across the proposed mining area. Corn and other row crops account for 825 acres (15%) of Chieftain’s proposal, randomly distributed across the area of interest. Collectively, these land-cover types account for 22% of all polygons averaging 5.7 and 4.7 acres, respectively. Shrublands account for ≤1% of the Chieftain proposal (36 acres) averaging 3 acres spread across a mere 12 polygons (Figures 4 and 5).

Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Agricultural and Shrubland Cover Across Six Types

Figure 4. Chieftain proposal’s agricultural & miscellaneous cover across 5,671 acres, Barron County, WI

Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Cover Across Six Land-Use Types

Figure 5. Chieftain proposal’s land-cover by acreage across 5,671 acres, Barron County, WI

Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Wetland Cover Across Seven Community Types

Figure 6. Chieftain silica sand mine proposal’s wetland cover across 5,671 acres in Barron County, WI.

Seven types of forested and shrub-dominated wetlands occupy 101 acres (1.8%) of Chieftain’s PLSS parcels, with an average size of four acres spread across 49 discrete polygons. Wetlands are clustered in three sections of the proposed mining area, with the largest continuous polygons being adjacent 160 acre “Wetland, Lowland Shrub, Broad-leaved Deciduous” and 88 acre “Wetland, Emergent/Wet Meadow” polygons along the area of interest’s eastern edge (See Figure 6 right).

Land Value

In an effort to quantify the value of this aggregation of parcels we calculated annual plant and soil productivity, as well as crop productivity, in terms of tons of carbon and nitrogen3 lost using established WI forest, crop, and freshwater productivity values.4-6 

It is worth noting that the following estimates are conservative given that we were not able to determine average above/belowground ecosystem productivity values for the wetland and barren. Additionally, our estimates for crops and grasslands did not include belowground productivity estimates, which likely would increase the following estimates by 20-30%.

1. Forests

The aforementioned-forested polygons accrue 44,274-90,969 tons of aboveground CO2. This means that if we assume the average forest in this area is 65-85 years old, the Chieftain mine proposal would potentially remove 3.3-6.8 million tons of built up CO2 equivalents. This figure is equal to the per capita CO2 emissions of 202,800-416,700 WI residents. The renewable wood generated on this site has a current market value of $418,516 to $654,125.

If we assume that the price of CO2 is somewhere between $12 and $235 per ton the forested polygons within Chieftain’s proposal currently capture (remove from the atmosphere) $4-17 million worth of CO2 annually.

Additionally, this area generates 23,262-45,447 tons of CO2 via soil processes such as litter decomposition and root production (i.e., 1.8-3.4 million tons over the average 65-85 year lifespan of these forests). The annual value of these belowground processes in terms of soil fertility (i.e., soil organic matter, nitrogen, and phosphorus) is somewhere between $569,962 and $1,029,662 or $43-77 million over the 65-85 year period used in this analysis.

2. Forage Crops and Grasslands

The 1,018 acres of forage crops are currently generating 6,526 CO2 tons per year, which is equivalent to the per capita emissions of 400 WI residents (Note: This carbon has a current value in the range of $417,700-$848,200). The 992 acres of grasslands are capturing 6,600-12,600 tons of CO2 per year and if we assume the average grassland parcel in WI is 5-15 years of age these polygons have captured CO2 equivalent to the per capita emissions of 4,000-7,700 Wisconsinites. Together these two land-cover types capture $840,300-2,518,000 worth of CO2 annually. Again it is worth noting these values do not include any accounting soil processes, which are generally 20-30% of aboveground productivity.

3. Corn, Other Row Crops, Shrublands

The 860 acres of corn, miscellaneous row crops, and shrublands are currently generating 10,450-10,980 CO2 tons per year, which is equivalent to the per capita emissions of 640-670 WI residents. Using the same assumptions about time in grassland (i.e., average Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) tenure) and the 65-85 year assumption used for forests for shrublands we estimate these three land-cover types annually capture CO2 equivalent to the per capita emissions of 8,600-11,030 Wisconsinites. Together these three land-cover types capture $682,420-1,498,030 worth of CO2 annually.

The total average value of commodities produced on the 1,843 acres of cropland is $462 per acre or $851,272 annually.

4. Open Waters

This small fraction of the Chieftain proposal captures 134 tons worth of CO2 annually with a value of $8,590-17,650.

Potential CO2 Capture and Storage Removal associated with the Chieftain Silica Mine Proposal, Barron County, WI

Total Quantifiable Monetary Value

In summary, the nine Chieftain frac sand mines if approved would use land that currently generates $8.77-16.63 million in ecosystem services and commodities per year. Historical and future land-use potential valuations are generally not accounted for in mineral lease agreements. This analysis demonstrates that such values are nontrivial and should at the very least be incorporated into lease agreements, given that post-mining reclamation strategies result in lands that are 40% less productive. If these lands are converted to sand mines, their annual values would drop to $5.0-9.5 million post-development.

Questions about the impact of such operations on LULC in the Mississippi Valley are becoming more and more frequent. For example, families such as the Schultz in Trempealeau County are signing permanent conservation easements. Doing so allows them to continue farming and allocates some acreage to the restoration of oak savanna and dry prairie, considered by the WI Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as “globally imperiled” and “globally rare,” respectively.

References & Footnotes

  1. It is worth noting that Chieftain is taking a huge gamble with this proposal. It stands to reason that such risky ventures are necessary given that the company’s share price has plummeted to $00.15 per share since its IPO days of around $5.50-6.00. These gambles could either catapult Chieftain into the frac sand mining big leagues or relegate it to the bench, however.
  2. Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Proposal, Barron County, WI Review, page 4
  3. We used carbon and nitrogen as their importance from a greenhouse gas (i.e., CO2, CH4, N2O), biogeochemical, and soil fertility perspective is well established.
  4. Burrows, S.N., Gower, S.T., Norman, J.M., Diak, G., Mackay, D.S., Ahl, D.E., Clayton, M.K., 2003. Spatial variability of aboveground net primary production for a forested landscape in northern Wisconsin. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 33, 2007-2018.
  5. Klopatek, J.M., Stearns, F.W., 1978. Primary Productivity of Emergent Macrophytes in a Wisconsin Freshwater Marsh Ecosystem. American Midland Naturalist 100, 320-332.
  6. Scheiner, S.M., Jones, S., 2002. Diversity, productivity and scale in Wisconsin vegetation. Evolutionary Ecology Research 4, 1097-1117.

Thanks to Jim Lacy at the Wisconsin Sate Cartographer’s Office, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Frac Sands Mines and Related Facilities

Northern American Frac Sand Mines

Pattern, Process, Quality, Quantity, and US Frac Sands
By Ted Auch, OH Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance;
Daniel Berghoff, The Ohio State University; Elliott Kurtz, Intern, FracTracker Alliance

Part I, Frac Sands Locations and Silica Geology Map Description


Click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map for a fullscreen view and to access the legend.

This is a map of silica sands/frac sands mines, drying facilities, and value added facilities in North America. The map includes addresses and facility polygons. We present production for only 24 of these facilities all of which are in Wisconsin. The remaining Wisconsin and other state facilities do not have production or acreage data associated with them pursuant to a lack of disclosure requirements at the state level and USGS’s confidentiality agreement with all firms. The sandstone/silica geology polygons presented herein – in certain instances – include a breakdown of each polygon’s land cover distribution across agriculture, urban/suburban, temperate deciduous forest, and conifer forests. At the present time we only have this type of delineation for the primary frac sands producing US state, Wisconsin, along with Ohio, with Minnesota soon to arrive. The identification of each polygon’s land cover gives a sense for the types of ecosystem services present and/or threatened from a macro perspective. During our tour of select West Central Wisconsin frac sand mines it became apparent that the mining industry was essentially picking off forested “bluffs” or drumlins because these are generally the areas where frac sand deposits are deepest and closest to the surface. In return landowners are returned these parcels with less dramatic slopes making them more amenable to grazing or crop production. Consequently understanding the current land cover of each sandstone polygon will give us a sense for how much forest, grasslands, or wetlands acreage could potentially be converted to traditional agricultural usage.

Part I of this series can be found here.

Data Sources

Industry data was provided by or sourced from the following organizations, individuals, or websites:

Methodology

Land Cover Data Methodology:

State Level Primary and Secondary Silica Sand Geology – polygons extracted from USGS Mineral Resources > Online Spatial Data > Geology. Primary and secondary polygons are dissolved by Unit Age.Land cover in km2 and as a % of the entire polygon are presented using the following:

  1. “Select By Attributes” tool in ArcMAP
  2. _geol_poly_dd
  3. “ROCKTYPE1” = Primary; “ROCKTYPE1” = Secondary
  4. Using the following protocol we have begun to code each Silica Sand Geology polygon for land cover in terms of km^2 and % of polygons. The protocol fractionates polygons into forest, crop, pasture, urban, and wetlands:Used zonal statistics, which is in the spatial analyst toolbox in ArcGIS.

Here’s the basic procedure:

  1. Download national land cover dataset which can be found at: http://www.mrlc.gov/nlcd2006.php
  2. Before recoding the raster, it may be easier to manage after clipping it to a smaller extent such as the state you are interested in. Simply use Arc’s Clip tool to do this. I also found that QGIS has a fast, easy, clipping tool called Clipper. Once the raster is a bit more manageable, use the legend for the dataset that is on the above webpage to recode the raster into a set of rasters for each land cover type you’re interested in. Use Arc’s Reclassify to set all the values you want to 1 and all other values to 0. This process can also be done in QGIS which I found to be easier and faster. For QGIS, use Raster Calculator and create an expression that connects all the rasters of interest with “OR.” The syntax should be something along the lines of: ([name of raster @ band1] = first forest value) OR ([name of raster @ band1] = second forest value) and so on for all your values.
  3. Use the zonal statistics tool in Arc (Zonal Statistics as Table) to get the sum (it is important that is the sum) of the new binary raster for each polygon for each shapefile you’re using. The tool used should export a table of values.
  4. Add the table that the zonal statistics tool outputs and then join it to the shapefile you used to generate it.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the other raster layers you generated with reclassify.
  6. Export the shapefile with the joined data.
  7. Put the shapefile back in Arc and open the attribute table.
  8. Add a new column.
  9. Use field calculator to calculate this column as 900 times the sum you got from your first zonal statistics run (because the data are in 30mX30m resolution, this will give you a good approximation of the square meters of land cover affected).
  10. Repeat steps 8 and 9 for your other zonal statistics results.
  11. Repeat step 2 for other raster classes you are interested in (developed, cultivated, wetland, etc.).
  12. Repeat steps 3-10 for the other shapefiles you are using.