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Frac sand mining from the sky in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s Nonmetallic Mining Parcel Registration Program

How the frac sand industry is circumventing local control, plus where the industry is migrating

What is nonmetallic mineral mining?

It was more than a year and half ago that anti-frac sand organizer – and movement matriarch – Pat Popple published a white paper by attorney Elizabeth Feil in her Frac Sand Sentinel newsletter. The paper outlined potential impacts of something the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) calls the “Marketable Nonmetallic Mineral Deposit Registration” (MNMDR) program.

The program, passed in 2000, is outlined in Wisconsin’s administrative code under Subchapter VI “Registration of Marketable Nonmetallic Mineral Deposits (NR 135.53-NR 135.64). This program allows landowners to register parcels that sit atop marketable nonmetallic mineral deposits, such as frac sand, according to a licensed professional geologist. The geologist uses “logs or records of drilling, boring, geophysical surveys, records of physical inspections of outcrops or equivalent scientific data” to outline the quality, extent, depth, accessibility, and current market value of the minerals.

If a mine operator is not the landowner, it must first coordinate registration with the landowner to:

… provide protection against present or future land uses, such as the erection of permanent structures, that would impede their development…to promote more orderly future development of identified nonmetallic mineral resources and minimize conflict among land uses.

Where is frac sand mining occurring in Wisconsin?


Photos by Ted Auch, Fractracker Alliance, and aerial support provided by LightHawk

Limitations of the registration program

The only requirement under this program is that the landowner “provide evidence that nonmetallic mining is a permitted or conditional use for the land under zoning in effect on the day in which notice is provided to the zoning authorities.” All registrations must be recorded in the county’s registrar of deeds 120 days before filing the registration. This process results in zoning authorities having a 60-day window to determine if they support or object to registrations in circuit courts.

Once counties are notified, they have no recourse for objection aside from proving that the deposit is not marketable or the parcel is not zoned for mining.

As Ms. Feil wrote, this program “preserves…[parcel] eligibility for nonmetallic mining in the future, even if a local governing body later passes new mining restrictions.” The former will have already been proven by the licensed geologist, and the latter is highly unlikely given lax or non-existent zoning in rural Wisconsin, where many land parcels are outside incorporated townships. Any parcel registered on this program remains in the program for a 10 year period and may be automatically re-registered under the initial geological assessment for another 10 year term “at least 10 days and no more than one year before registration expires.”

After this 20-year period, parcels start from scratch with respect to the registration process.

Initial inquiry and map methodology

As part of her white paper, Ms. Feil noted that in a quick check of her home county’s register of deeds, she found six nonmetallic mineral deposit registrations since 2000 in Trempealeau County and nine in neighboring Chippewa County. As a result of Ms. Feil’s initial inquiry, we decided it would be worth conducting a sweeping search for all nonmetallic parcel registrations in the nine most heavily frac sand-mined Wisconsin counties: Trempealeau, Barron, Crawford, Chippewa, Monroe, Jackson, Clark, Dunn, and Eau Claire.

“Wisconsin Nonmetallic Mineral Deposit Parcel Registrations and Likely Mine Parcels” Map

We were fortunate enough to receive funding from the Save The Hills Alliance (STHA) to conduct this research. We received “boots on the ground” assistance from the likes of Ms. Feil, Ms. Popple, and several other volunteers for acquiring hard copies of registrations as of the summer of 2018.

Our goal was to construct a map that would provide a predictive and dynamic tool for residents, activists, non-profits, researchers, local governments, and journalists to understand the future scale and scope of frac sand mining across West Central Wisconsin. We hope this will inspire a network of citizen scientists and mapping tools that can serve as a model for analogous efforts in Illinois, Minnesota, and Southeastern Michigan.

In addition to identifying parcels falling under Wisconsin DNR’s MNMDR registration program, we also used Wisconsin’s State Cartographer’s Office and Land Information Program “V4 Statewide Parcel Data” to extract all parcels:

  1. Currently owned by active or historically relevant frac sand mine operators and their subsidiaries,
  2. Owned by families or entities that have allowed for mining to occur on their property and/or have registered parcels under the MNMDR program, and,
  3. All cranberry production parcels in Wisconsin frac sand counties – namely Monroe, Jackson, Clark, Wood, and Eau Claire, with Monroe, Jackson, and Wood the state’s top producing counties by acreage.

The latter were included in the map because Wisconsin DNR identified the importance of cranberry bogs in their Silica Sand Mining in Wisconsin January 2012 report. The report defined the “Cranberry Exemption” as follows:

Some of the counties in central Wisconsin that are seeing an increase in frac sand mining are also home to much of the state’s cranberry farming. Mining sand is a routine practice in the process of raising cranberries. Growers use sand in the cranberry beds to provide adequate drainage for the roots of the cranberry plants. The sand prevents root rot and fosters plant growth. Chapter 94.26, Wis. Stats, was established in 1867 and exempts cranberry growers from much of the laws applying to waters of the state under Chapter 30, Wis. Stats. With this exemption in place cranberry growers can, in theory, mine sand wherever and however they desire for use in cranberry production. Some cranberry growers are taking advantage of the high demand for sand and are selling their sand on the frac sand market (emphasis added). However, the Department has recently determined that the exemption in Ch. 94.26, Wis. Stats., from portions of Chapters 30 and 31, Wis. Stats., for cranberry culture is not applicable to non-metallic mining sites where a NR 216, W is. Adm. Code, stormwater permit is required. For those non-metallic mining operations where the material is sold and hauled off site, Chapters 30 and 31, Wis. Stats., jurisdiction will be applied.

Finally, the last data layer we’ve included in this map speaks to the enormous volumes of subsurface water that the industrial sand mining industry has consumed since 2010. This layer includes monthly and annual water volume withdrawals by way of 137 industrial sand mine (i.e., IN 65) high capacity wells (Our thanks to Wisconsin DNR Water Supply Specialist – Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater’s Bob Smail for helping us to compile this data.)

We have coupled that data to annual tonnages in order to quantify gallons per ton ratios for several mines across several years.

Results

Below is the completed map of current and potential frac sand mines in West Central Wisconsin, as well as high capacity wells. Click on the features of the map for more details.

View Map Full Screen| How FracTracker maps work 

We identified 4,049 nonmetallic parcel registration and existing sand mine operator parcels totaling 113,985 acres or 178 square miles spread across 14 counties in West Central Wisconsin (Table 1). The largest parcel sizes were U.S. Silica’s 398-acre parcel in Sparta, Monroe County and Badger Mining’s 330-acre parcel in St. Marie, Green Lake County. The average parcel is a mere 28 acres.

To put these figures in perspective, back in 2013 we quantified the full extent of land-use change associated with frac sand mining in this same region and found that the 75 active mines at the time occupied a total of 5,859 acres and averaged roughly 75 acres in size. This means that if current parcel ownership and nonmetallic parcel registrations run their course, the impact of frac sand mining from a land-use perspective could potentially increase by 1,900%!

This is an astounding development and would alter large chunks of West Central Wisconsin’s working landscape, dairy industry, and “Badger State” mentality forever.

Table 1. Nonmetallic or operator-owned frac sand parcels and their total and average acreage in 14 West Central Wisconsin counties

County Number of Parcels Total Acreage Average Parcel Acreage
Barron 267 8,737 33
Buffalo 211 5,902 28
Burnett 4 140 35
Chippewa 580 15,585 27
Clark 74 2,391 32
Dunn 73 2,245 31
Eau Claire 151 4,101 27
Green Lake 74 2,648 36
Jackson 1,128 36,152 32
Monroe 459 11,185 24
Pierce 168 3,415 20
Rusk 2 64 32
Trempealeau 787 19,375 25
Wood 71 2,044 29

As for the “Cranberry Exemption” identified by Wisconsin DNR, we identified an additional 3,090 cranberry operator or family-owned parcels totaling 98,217 acres or 153 square miles – nearly equal to the acreage identified above. Figure 1 shows the extent of cranberry bog parcels and frac sand mines in Monroe, Wood, and Jackson Counties. The two largest parcels in this inquiry were the 275-acre parcel owned by Fairview Cranberry in Monroe County and a 231 acre-parcel owned by Ocean Spray in Wood County. Interestingly, the former is already home to a sizeable (i.e., 266 acres) frac sand mine operated by Smart Sand pictured and mapped in Figure 2.

Figure 1. Cranberry bog parcels and frac sand mines in the Wisconsin counties of Monroe, Jackson, and Wood

Figure 2. Current and potential extent of Smart Sand’s Fairview Cranberry frac sand mine, Tomah, Monroe County, Wisconsin

In total, the potential for mine expansion in West Central Wisconsin could consume an additional 212,202 acres or 331 square miles. Characterized by dairy farms, and also known as The Driftless Area, this region is where Aldo Leopold penned his masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac. To give a sense of scale to these numbers, it is worth noting that this type of acreage would be like clearing an area the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis.

Project limitations and emerging concerns

After completing this project, Liz Feil, Pat Popple, and I got on the phone to discuss what we perceived to be its limitations, as well as their concerns with the process and the implications of the MNMDR program, which are listed below:

1. Both Liz and Pat found that when they visited certain counties to inquire as to parcel registrations, most of the registrars of deeds had very little, if any, idea as to what they were talking about, which begged the questions:

  • Why does Wisconsin not have a uniform protocol and archival process for such registrations?
  • What are the implications of this program with respect to county and township taxable lands, future zoning, and/or master planning?
  • What does this program mean for surface and mineral rights ownership in Wisconsin, a state where these two are coupled or decoupled on a parcel by parcel basis?

2. Liz and Pat felt they ended up teaching county registrars more about this registration process during this exercise than they ended up learning themselves.

3. Given the potential ramifications of these types of programs, such registrations should be centrally archived rather than archived at disparate sites across the state. Registrations should be explicitly bolted onto efforts like the aforementioned statewide V4 Statewide Parcel Data, given the fact that the MNMDR parcels are registered for 10 years.

The footprint of frac sand mining at any one point is just a glimpse into how vast its influence could be in the future. Mapping parcel ownership like we’ve done gives people a more realistic sense for the scale and scope of mining in the future and is a more realistic way to analyze the costs/benefits of such an industry. This type of mapping exercise would have greatly benefited those that live in the coal fields of Appalachia and the Powder River Basin as they began to debate and regulate mining, rather than the way they were presented with proposals as smaller discrete operations.

This piecemeal process belies the environmental and social impact of any industrial process, which frac sand mining very much is.

Industrial sand mining and high capacity wells

There is a growing concern, based on a thorough analysis of the data, that the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) industry’s unquenchable thirst for freshwater is growing at an unsustainable rate. Here at FracTracker, we have been quantifying the exponential increase in HVHF water use, namely in Ohio’s Muskingum River Watershed and northern West Virginia, for more than five years now. More recently, Duke University’s Avner Vengosh has conducted a thorough national analysis of this trend.

While the trends in HVHF water use and waste production are disturbing, such analysis leaves out the water industry uses to mine and process frac sand, or “proppant” in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. Failure to incorporate such values in an analysis of HVHF’s impact on freshwater, both surface and subsurface, grossly underestimates the industry’s impact on watersheds and competing water uses.

Figure 3 shows monthly and cumulative water demand of frac sand mining. The first thing to point out is the marked seasonal disparities in water withdrawals due to the fact that many of Wisconsin’s frac sand mines go dormant during the winter and ramp up as soon as the ground thaws. The most important result of this work is that we finally have a sense for the total volumes of water permanently altered by the frac sand mining industry:

An astounding 30 billion gallons of water were used between January 2010 and December 2017

This figure is equivalent to the annual demand of ~72,500 US residents (based on an assumption of 418,184 gallons per year). This figure is also equivalent to between 2,179 and 3,051 HVHF wells in Ohio/West Virginia.

Figure 3. Cumulative and monthly water demand by Wisconsin’s frac sand mine Hi-Cap wells, January 2010-December 2017

A graph of water use trends for frac sand mining which shows significant increase in monthly and cumulative water consumptionFigure 4 shows water use by operator. The worst actors with respect to water withdrawals over this period were two wells serving Hi-Crush’s active Wyeville mine that in total used 9.6 billion gallons of subsurface water. Covia Holdings, formerly Unimin and Fairmount Santrol, utilized 5.8 billion gallons in processing an undisclosed amount of frac sand at their Tunnel City mine. Covia’s neighboring mine in Oakdale, owned by Wisconsin White Sand and Smart Sand, used more than 2.5 billion gallons during this period spread across six high-capacity wells.

Figure 4. Total water usage by operator, January 2010-December 2017

Water Use Graph by Frac Sand Operator, 2010-2017These tremendous water volumes prompted us to ask whether we could determine the amount of water needed to mine a typical ton of Wisconsin frac sand. There are numerous issues with data quality and quantity at the individual mine level and those issues stretch from the USGS all the way down to individual townships. However, some townships do collect tonnage records and/or “Fees Tied to Production” from mine operators which allow us to quantify productivity. Using this scant data and the above water volume data we were able to determine “gallons to tons of sand mined” ratios for the years of 2013, 2014, 2015, and/or 2017 for four mines and those ratios range between 30-39 to as much as 521 gallons of water per ton of sand (Table 2).

Table 2. Gallons of water per ton of sand mined for four Wisconsin frac sand mines, 2013-2017

 

Owner

 

Property

 

City

 

County

Gallon Per Ton
2013 2014 2015 2017
Wisconsin Industrial Sand Maiden Rock Facility Maiden Rock Pierce 98 90 66
Thompson, Terry Thompson Hills Mine Chetek Barron 30 521
Lagesse, Samuel NA Bloomer Chippewa 39 48
CSP Rice Lake Mine Rice Lake Barron 104

Conclusions

For far too long we’ve been monitoring frac sand mining retrospectively or in the present tense. We’ve had very little data available to allow for prospective planning or to model the impact of this industry and its role in the Hydraulic Fracturing Industrial Complex writ large. Given what we are learning about the fracking industry’s insatiable appetite for water and sand, it is imperative that we understand where frac sand mining will occur if this appetite continues to grow (as we expect it may, given the current political environment at the state and federal level).

Three examples of this growing demand can be found in our work across the Great Lakes:

1) With the new age of what the HVHF industry is calling “Super Laterals”, between 2010 and 2017 we saw average proppant demand jump nearly six-fold to roughly 25-30 thousand tons per lateral.

2) In Le Sueur County, MN Covia – which is a recent merger of silica mining giants Unimin and Fairmount Santrol – has plans and/or parcel ownership speaking to the potential for an 11-fold increase in their mining operations, which would increase acreage from 560 to 6,500 acres (if sand demand increases at its current clip) (Figures 5 and 6).

 

Figure 5. Unimin’s current 560-acre frac sand mine parcel in Kasota, Le Sueur County

 

Figure 6. The potential 6,500 extent of Unimin mining by way of parcel ownership search

 

3) As we’ve previously highlighted, the potential outside Detroit, Michigan for US Silica to expand its current frac sand mining operations would displace hundreds of families. The planned expansion would grow their mine from its current 650-acre footprint to nearly 1,400 acres in the town of South Rockwood, Monroe County (Figure 7).

 

Figure 7. US Silica’s current (642 acres) and potential (1,341 acres) frac sand mine footprint in Monroe County, Michigan.

Given our experience mapping and quantifying the current and future impact of frac sand mining in states with limited mining activity, we felt it was critical that we apply this methodology to the state where industry is mining a preponderance of frac sand. However, this analysis was rendered a bit more complicated by the presence of the MNMDR program and Wisconsin DNR’s “Cranberry Exemption.” Adding to the challenge is the fact that many in Wisconsin’s frac sand communities demanded that we address the tremendous volumes of water being used by the industry and work to incorporate such data into any resulting map.

We hope that this map allows Wisconsin residents to act in a more offensive and prospective way in voicing their concerns, or simply to become better informed on how sand mining has impacted other communities, will influence them, and what the landscape could look like in the future.

It is critical that we see sand mining not as discrete mines with discrete water demands but rather as a continuum, or better yet an ecosystem, that could potentially swallow large up sizeable chunks of Western Wisconsin.


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

P.S. We’ll continue to add MNMDR registered parcels periodically. As parcels change ownership, we will be sure to update both the cranberry bog and industry owned parcel inventory in the comings months and years.

Frac sand mine in Wisconsin

Living on the Front Lines with Silica Sand Mines

Guest blog by Christine Yellowthunder, an environmental activist, tree farmer, and poet

Most people living in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa have increased their knowledge over the past six years regarding the fracking destruction occurring across the country.  The horror of fracking damages to life and land remain in the minds of most people who live near the massive land destruction from silica sand mining for what the unconventional oil and gas industry lovingly calls “proppant”.

Very often, we in the Midwest wonder if the rest of the country knows that this specialized form of silica sand mining destroys our rolling hills, woodlands, and water sources in order for silica sand to feed the fracking industry’s insatiable proppant demand.

Those of us who live in the direct path of this unhealthy silica sand mining need to make our stories known.

Bridge Creek Town, Wisconsin

The quiet abundance of life on an 80-acre tree farm in Wisconsin, fed by natural springs and wetlands, has nurtured every dream this prairie-raised transplant could conceive in the last 30 years. Six years of vigilance and rational debate has led to loss on every front when addressing the local government’s permitting of silica sand mines and its health and safety impacts on the community.

The largest sand mine in Bridge Creek Town lies one mile north of our tree farm. Two years ago, 40 acres of trees were culled for the installation of high intensity power lines to feed anticipated silica sand mine expansion under the legal provision of “Right-of-Way.” That document was signed by a previous land owner in 1948. No specific amount of land was specified on the original right-of-way, thus allowing significant legal destruction and permanent loss against the farm.

However, from a tree farm owner’s perspective, we have seen the variety and number of wildlife species increase at our farm over the past six years – likely because these species view our farm as an oasis, or what ecologists call a refugium, in an otherwise altered mixed-use landscape. The maximum capacity of the tree farm as a wildlife sanctuary is unknown. The adjacent silica Hi-Crush sand mine depletes the hillsides and woodlots in its path.

Frac Sand Mine, Eau Claire County, WI

Frac sand mine in Eau Claire County, WI

Hi-Crush Partners LP’s frac sand mine

The weekly blasting away of the hillsides sends shock waves – shaking homes and outbuildings weekly, along with our nerves. Visible cracks appear in the walls of buildings, and private wells are monitored for collapse and contamination.  The sand mine only guarantees repair to property lying within a half-mile of the mine. The mine blasts the land near Amish schools and has had a noticeable effect on the psyche of countless farm animals. The invisible silica is breathed by every living thing much to the mine’s denial, with deadly silicosis appearing up to 15 years after initial exposure. Our community is left to wonder who will manifest the health effects first. Blasting unearths arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into private wells and into the remaining soil.

There has been no successful reclamation of the land after it is mined, with most residents wondering what the actual point is of developing a reclamation plan is if timely implementation and stringent reclamation metrics are not enforced.  All useful topsoil has been stripped away and is dead with the land only able to support sedge grasses and very few of them at best. No farming on this mined land can occur even though these mining companies promise farm owners that when they are done mining, soil productivity will meet or exceed pre-mining conditions and much milder slopes than the pre-mining bluffs that contained the silica sand. Needless to say, land values of homes, farms, and property decrease as the mines creeps closer.

Explore photos of Hi-Crush Partner’s frac sand mine:

The people of Bridge Creek

Bridge Creek, as well as many other towns, have been easy picking for the mines. Many towns are unzoned, having little industry, a meager tax base, and a huge land area for a very sparse population.  The unemployment and underemployment rates are quite high. Many residents in Bridge Creek farm, including a very large population of Amish who own a checkerboard of land used for farming and saw mills. Most of these Amish families arrived here from Canada and bought farms when the mid 80’s drought put small farms up for sale. The Amish community seldom votes, and their strong religious beliefs prevent them from taking a stand on any political issues.

Video of contaminated well water an Amish farm in Augusta, WI near frac sand mining

Scroll to the end of the article to explore more impacts to the Amish community

The original residents of this land, the Ho-Chunk people, are few in number and wish to protect their home lands that they had purchased back from the government. 

Furthermore, a significant number of artists live in this community and have chosen to keep their homes and studios in anonymity. Thus, it is very difficult to amass any unity among this diverse population to stand up to the local government. Many long-time residents have the attitude that you can’t stop “progress.” I wonder if they know that this kind of progress kills the future?

Broken promises made by the mining company for jobs and huge payments to the initial land sellers have divided families and the community. Even though the mining boom was sold as a job provider, few locals are employed by the mines. There is little faith that the local government will provide for the safety and well being of its residents.  Presentation of research, facts regarding aquifer endangerment and silica sand health risks, and proposals written in detail outlining potential protective ordinances have cost citizens, including myself, enormous amounts of time and money. The government responses remain the same. The sand mines have been allowed to continue destruction of the natural resources to no one’s benefit except for the enormous profits lining the coffers of the mining corporations.

Resistance sign reading "No Frac Sand Mining" in the August area of Wisconsin

Today, after six years of continuous silica sand mining moving ever closer, I can no longer fight logically and linearly to eliminate the greed, injustice, and usurped power head on. I fight land destruction as a different warrior.

I choose to protect this land and wood by nurturing its existence through planting more native trees, educating others to the wisdom and wonder of nature, by photo journaling the struggle for its survival and documenting this land’s story so that future citizens will know the truth. Moreover, I will continue to spread the message loud and long: stopping the silica sand mining will stop fracking.

These efforts may be the best that I can manage with a grieving heart. A fierce spirit will continue to share this story and those of others living in the Midwest where the silica sand laden hills roll under the top soil of our lives.


Christine Yellowthunder is an environmental activist of Lakota heritage and is also a tree farmer and poet. She lives on her farm with her husband Ralph Yellowthunder, a Ho-Chunk elder and Vietnam combat veteran.

The Amish community in Bridge Creek:

Listen below to in interview of an Amish farmer and clock maker who lives adjacent to the Hi-Crush mine, by Ted Auch, FracTracker’s Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and local resident, Mary Ann O’Donahue:

 

Photos of the property and workshop:


Feature image: Frac sand mining in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from LightHawk.

Documenting Fracking Impacts: A Yearlong Tour from a Bird’s-Eye-View

“The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)

I always tell people that you can’t really understand or appreciate the enormity, heterogeneity, and complexity of the unconventional oil and gas industry’s impact unless you look at the landscape from the cockpit of a Cessna 172. This bird’s-eye-view allows you to see the grandeur and nuance of all things beautiful and humbling. Conversely, and unfortunately more to the point of what I’ve seen in the last year, a Cessna allows one to really absorb the extent, degree, and intensity of all things destructive.

I’ve had the opportunity to hop on board the planes of some amazing pilots like Dave Warner, a forester formerly of Shanks, West Virginia (Note: More on our harrowing West Virginia flight with Dave later!!), Tim Jacobson Esq. out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, northern Illinois retired commodity and tree farmer Doug Harford, and Target corporate jet pilot Fred Muskol out of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

Since joining FracTracker I’ve been fortunate to have completed nearly a dozen of these “morning flights” as I like to call them, and five of those have taken place since August 2017. I’m going to take the next few paragraphs to share what I’ve found in my own words and by way of some of the photos I think really capture how hydraulic fracturing, and all of its tentacles, has impacted the landscape.

The following is by no means an empirical illustration. I’m increasingly aware, however, that often times tables, charts, and graphs fail to capture much of the scale and scope of fossil fuel’s impact. Photos, if properly georeferenced and curated, are as robust a source of data as a spreadsheet or shapefile, both of which are the traditional coins of the realm here at FracTracker.

West Central Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines

August 2, 2017

Figure 1. Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota silica sand mines, processing facilities, and related operations

It was nearly a year ago today that I met Bloomer, Wisconsin dairy farmer Ken Schmitt at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (KEAU) and soon thereafter jumped into Tim Jacobson’s Cessna 172 to get a bird’s-eye-view of the region’s many frac sand mines and their impacts (Figure 1). These sites are spread out over a 12-county region known as West Central Wisconsin (WCW). Ken hadn’t been up to see these mines since October of 2016 and was eager to see how they had “progressed,” knowing what he did about their impact on his neck of the woods in northern Chippewa County.

Ken is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, and – befitting a dairy farmer – he is also one of the most conservative and analytical folks I’ve ever met. However, that morning it was clear that his patience with county administrators and the frac sand mining industry had long since run out. He was tired of broken promises, their clear and ubiquitous bullying tactics, and a general sense that his livelihood and the farm he was hoping to leave his kids were at risk due to sand mining’s complete capture of WCW’s residents and administrators.

Meanwhile Mr. Jacobson Esq. was intimately familiar with some of the legal tools residents were using to fight the spread of sand mining in the WCW. This is something he referred to as “anticipatory nuisance” lawsuits, which he and his colleagues were pursuing on behalf of several landowners against OmniTrax’s (f/k/a Terracor) “sand mine, wet and dry processing, a conveyor system to a rail load out with manifest yard” proposal in Jackson County, Wisconsin. I, too, have worked with Tim to inform some of his legal work with respect to the nuisance stories and incidents I’ve documented in my travels, as well as research into the effects of sand mining across Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Explore details from our sand mining tour by clicking on the images below:

Our flight lasted nearly 2.5 hours and stretched out over 4,522 square miles. It included nearly 20 sand mines – and related infrastructure – in the counties of Jackson, Wood, Clark, Eau Claire, Monroe, Trempealeau, and Buffalo. What we saw was a sizeable expansion of the mining complex in the region since the last time I flew the area – nearly four years earlier on October 8, 2013. The number and size of mines that had popped up since that trip were far greater than any of us had expected.

This expansion paralleled the relative – and total –increase in demand for “proppant” from the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) all across the country (Figure 2).

Figure 1. A map of the likely destination for Wisconsin’s frac sand mines silica sand based on an analysis of Superior Silica Sand’s 2015 SEC 10Ks.

Figure 2. A map of the likely destination for Wisconsin’s frac sand mines silica sand based on an analysis of Superior Silica Sand’s 2015 SEC 10Ks.

West Virginia Panhandle & Southeastern Ohio

January 26, 2018

On the morning of January 26th, I woke up on the west side of Cleveland thinking there was very little chance we were going to get up in the air for our flight with SouthWings’ pilot Dave Warner due to inclement weather. There was a part of me that was optimistic, however, so I decided to make the three hour drive down to the Marshall County Airport (KMPG) in Moundsville, West Virginia from Cleveland in the hopes that the “cold rain and snow” we’d been receiving was purely lake effect stuff and the West Virginia panhandle had not been in the path of the same cold front.

Marshall County, West Virginia Airport (KMPG) staff clearing the runway for our flight with SouthWings pilot Dave Warner, 1/26/2018

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Moundsville airport I was wrong, and the runway was pretty slick around 8:00 a.m. However, the airport’s staff worked diligently to de-ice and plow the runway and by the time Dave Warner arrived from southern West Virginia conditions were ideal. The goal of this flight was two-fold:

  1. Photograph some of the large-scale high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) infrastructure in the West Virginia counties of Doddridge, Wetzel, and Marshall owned and operated by MarkWest, and
  2. Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant was doing a story on natural gas gathering pipeline’s impact on waterways, and more specifically the Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). She was looking to see the impacted landscape from the air.

Both of these goals were achieved efficiently and safely, with the resulting Allegheny Front piece receiving significant interest across multiple public radio and television platforms including PRI’s Living On Earth.

Explore details from our WV / OH tour by clicking on the images below:

On my return drive home that afternoon the one new thing that really resonated with me was the fact that hydraulic fracturing or fracking has come to be defined by 4-5 acre well pads across Appalachian, Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. This is a myth, however, expertly perpetuated by the oil and gas industry and their talking shops. Fracking’s extreme volatility and quick declines in rates of return necessitate that this latest fossil fuel iteration install large pieces of infrastructure like compressor stations and cracking facilities. This all is to ensure timely movement of product from supply to demand and to optimize the “value added” products the global markets demand and plastics industry uses as their primary feedstocks. This large infrastructure was never mentioned at the outset of the shale revolution, and I would imagine if it had been there would be far more resistance.

The one old thing the trip reinforced was the omnipresence and sinuosity of natural gas gathering lines across extremely steep and forested Appalachian geographies. How these pipelines will hold up and what their hasty construction is doing to terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, not to mention humanity, is anyone’s guess; the data is just so darn bad.

Southeastern Ohio

March 5, 2018 – aka, The XTO Powhatan Point Well Pad Explosion Flight

FAA’s Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) notification

Around 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 15, 2018, an explosion occurred at XTO’s Schnegg frack pad “as the company worked to frack a fourth well” in Powhatan Point, Belmont County, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) around the incident’s location. The TFR was supposed to lapse during the afternoon of March 5, however, due to complications at the site the TFR was extended to the evening of March 8.

We were antsy to see what we could see, so we caught an emergency flight with Dave Warner, only this time under the LightHawk umbrella. We left on the morning of March 5th out of the all too familiar[1] Carroll County-Tolson Airport (KTSO). Although we couldn’t get close to the site, there was a holler valley to the northwest of the pad that allowed us to capture a photo of the ongoing releases. Additionally, within several weeks we obtained by FOIA the raw Ohio State Trooper monitoring footage from their helicopter and posted this footage to our YouTube channel, where it has received 4,787 views since March 19, 2018. This type of web traffic is atypical for anything that doesn’t include kittens, the Kardashians, or the Kardashians’ kittens.

Explore details from our Southeastern Ohio tour by clicking on the images below:

Much like our flight in January the most salient points I got out of Dave’s plane thinking about were:

  • Astonishment regarding the number of gas gathering lines and the fact that they seem to have been installed with very little-to-no reclamation forethought. They are also installed during a time of year when – even if hydroseed is applied – it won’t grow, leaving plenty of chances for predictable spring rains to cause major problems for streams and creeks, and
  • Amazement over the growing inventory of large processing infrastructure required by the HVHF industry. This insfrastructure includes the large Mark West and Blue Racer Midstream processing plants in Cadiz and Lewisville, Ohio, respectively, as well as Texas-based Momentum Midstream’s natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio along the Carroll and Harrison County borders. That complex is affectionately referred to by the company’s own spokesman as The Beast because of its sheer size.

It is a big plant, a very big plant and far bigger than other plants around here… What’s really amazing that we got it up and running in six months. No one believed that we could do that. – Momentum Midstream spokesman Eric Mize discussing their natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio, Ohio.

LaSalle County, Illinois

May 24 & 26, 2018

 Frac Sand Mines and The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands Buffalo Herd, Franklin Grove, Illinois

It was during the week of June 20, 2016 that I first visited the frac sand mine capital of the United States: LaSalle County, Illinois. Here is the land of giant silica sand mines owned by even larger multinationals like U.S. Silica, Unimin, and Fairmount Santrol.

Fast forward to the week of May 21st of this year, and I was back in the frac sand capital to interview several folks that live near these mines or have been advocating for a more responsible industry. I conducted a “morning flight” with several journalists and county officials from neighboring Ottawa County.

LaSalle County is an extremely interesting case study for anyone even remotely interested in the food, energy, and water (FEW) conversation that has begun to receive significant attention in the age of the “Shale Revolution.” (Such focus is largely thanks to the extreme amounts of water required during the fracking process.) While LaSalle County has never experienced even a single HVHF permit, it is home to much of the prized silica or “proppant” the HVHF industry prizes. La Salle receives this recognition due to its location above one of the finest sources of silica sand: the St. Peter Sandstone formation. This situation has prompted a significant expansion in the permitting of new silica sand mines and expansion of existing mines throughout the county – from small townships like North Utica and Oglesby to Troy Grove 7 miles north on East 8th Road.

Meanwhile, LaSalle County is home to some of the most productive soils in the United States, due largely to the carbon sequestration capabilities of the tallgrass prairies that once dominated the region. In any given year, the county ranks in the top 5 nationally based on the amount of soybean and corn produced on a per-acre basis. According to an analysis of the most recent USDA agricultural census, total agricultural value in LaSalle County exceeds $175 million or seven times the national average by county of roughly $23 million.

Needless to say, the short-term extraction of silica sands in the name of “energy independence” stands to have a profound impact on long-term “food security” in the U.S. and worldwide. Sadly, this conflict is similar to the one facing the aforementioned West Central Wisconsin, home to similarly productive soils. The cows that feed on the forage those soils produce some of the highest quality dairy anywhere. (As an aside: both regions are facing the realities of their disproportionate support for Donald Trump and the effects his trade war will have on their economies.)

LaSalle County is also home to the 2,630-acre Starved Rock State Park along the south bank of the Illinois River. Much of the park’s infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) back in the early 1900s. Starved Rock is home to 18 canyons featuring:

… vertical walls of moss-covered stone formed by glacial meltwater that slice dramatically through tree-covered sandstone bluffs. More than 13 miles of trails allow access to waterfalls, fed season runoff or natural springs, sandstone overhangs, and spectacular overlooks. Lush vegetation supports abundant wildlife, while oak, cedar and pine grow on drier, sandy bluff tops. – IL DNR

Starved Rock receives more than 2.5 million visitors annually, which is the most of any Illinois state park. However, it is completely surrounded by existing or proposed frac sand mines, including US Silica’s Covel Creek mine. US Silica even recently pitched an expansion to the doorstep of Starved Rock and future plans to nearly engulf the park’s perimeter. What such an expansion would do to the attractiveness of the park and its trickle down economic impact is debatable, but LaSalle County residents Paul Wheeler and photographer Michelle McCray took a stab at illustrating the value of the state park to residents for our audience back in August, 2016:


Our flight with LightHawk pilot and neighboring Mazon, Illinois retired farmer Doug Harford lifted off from Illinois Valley Regional Airport (KVYS) at around 9:00 a.m. local time on the morning of May 24th. We had perfect conditions for taking photos, with no clouds and a comfortable 70-75°F for the duration of a two-hour flight. We covered nearly 200 square miles and ten existing, abandoned, or permitted frac sand mines.

Explore details from our Illinois tour by clicking on the images below:

All passengers were struck by how large these mines were and how much several of the mines had expanded since the last time we all flew over them in June of 2016. The mines that had experienced the greatest rates of expansion were US Silica’s LaSalle Voss mine along Interstate 80 and the aforementioned Illinois River mine along with Fairmount Mineral’s major expansion, both in terms of infrastructure and actual mine footprint, in Wedron along the Fox River.

Figure 2. A map of the LaSalle County frac sand mines and associated St. Peter sandstone formation along with the city of Chicago for some geographic perspective.

Figure 3. A map of the LaSalle County frac sand mines and associated St. Peter sandstone formation, along with the city of Chicago for some geographic perspective.

Most of this expansion is due to three critical distinguishing characteristics about the industry in LaSalle County:

  • The processing and export infrastructure (i.e., east-west rail) is in place and allows for mining to take place at times when other sand mining regions are mothballed,
  • Due to the large aggregation of parcels for farming purposes, companies can lease or outright purchase large amounts of land from relatively few landowners, and
  • Only the largest firms are active in the region, and with economies of scale they are not subject to the same types of shocks that smaller firms are when the price of oil collapses (like it did between June 2015 and February 2016). This means that the conflict will only be amplified in the coming months and years as the frac sand mining industry looks to supersede agriculture as LaSalle County’s primary economic driver.

However, all is not lost in North Central Illinois. This hope was stoked during our sojourn – and my subsequent trip in person – up to see The Nature Conservancy’s 3,600 acre preserve in Franklin Grove on the border of Lee and Ogle counties. As someone who is working hard to establish a small plot of prairie grasses and associated wildflowers at my home outside Cleveland, I was hoping to see what an established prairie looks like from the air. My primary goal, however, was to see what a healthy herd of native bison looks like.[2] The Nachusa bison are unique in that they came:

… from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and…Unlike most other American bison, animals from the Wind Cave herd have no history of cross-breeding with cattle. Bison from Wind Cave are the species’ most genetically pure and diverse specimens.

We were fortunate during our flight to have spotted the heard at the western edge of the preserve in what volunteer naturalist, Betty Higby, later told me the staff calls Oak Island. While I am not a person of faith, seeing these behemoths roaming freely and doing what 20-30 million of their ancestors used to do across much of North America moved me in a way I was not prepared for. I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of awe and humility. How was I going to explain this beast’s former ubiquity and current novelty to my 5-year-old son, who shares a love of the North American Bison with me and would most certainly ask me what happened to this majestic creature?

Medina & Stark counties, Ohio NEXUS Pipeline flight

June 25, 2018

Ohio is currently home to 2,840 fracking permits, with 2,370 of these laterals having been drilled since September 2010. The growing concern around the fracking and petrochemicals conversation across much of the Midwest is the increasing number of FERC-permitted natural gas pipeline “proposals”[3] the industry is demanding it needs to maximize potential. Most residents in the path of these pipelines have strong objections to such development, citing the fact that imminent domain should not be invoked for corporate gain.

Much like all of the other patterns and processes we’ve documented and/or photographed at FracTracker, we felt that a flight over the latest FERC-approved pipeline – The NEXUS pipeline – would give us a better understanding of how this critical piece of infrastructure has altered the landscapes of Medina and Stark counties. Given the population density of these two northeastern Ohio counties, we also wanted to document the pipeline’s pathway with respect to urban and suburban centers.

Our flight on June 25th was delayed due to low clouds and last minute changes to the flight plan, but once we took off from Wadsworth Municipal Airport (3G3) with a local flight instructor it was clear that NEXUS is a pipeline that navigates a sinuous path in cities and townships like Green, Medina, Rittman, and Seville – coming dangerously close to thousands of homes and farms, as well as many schools and medical facilities.

Explore details from our NEXUS Pipeline tour by clicking on the images below:

Will this be the last FERC-approved pipeline to transverse Ohio in the name of “energy independence”? Will this pipeline and its brethren with names like the Utopia and ET Rover be monitored in real-time? If not, why? It is unfortunate, to say the least, that we so flippantly assume these pipelines are innocuous given their proximity to so many Ohioans. And, as if to add insult to injury, imminent domain is invoked. All this for a piece of oil and gas infrastructure that will profit companies on the global market, with only a fraction of the revenue returning to affected communities.

What’s Next?

I don’t know of a better way to understand the magnitude of these pipelines than flying over them at 1,000-1,500 feet, and I will continue to monitor and photograph oil and gas developments from the air with the assistance of amazing pilots like those affiliated with LightHawk and SouthWings.

To this end, I will be returning to West Central Wisconsin for yet another “morning flight” with the aforementioned La Crosse-area pilot and lawyer Tim Jacobson and frequent collaborator University of Wisconsin-Stout professor Tom Pearson.[4] Our flight plan will return us to the northern Wisconsin frac sand counties of Chippewa, Barron, Dunn, Eau Claire, and if we have time we’ll revisit the mines we photographed in August of last year. We’ve been told by Susan Bence, an environmental reporter out of Milwaukee Public Radio, that she is trying to convince the powers that be at NPR in Washington, DC that this is a story the entire country should hear about. Wish us luck!


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

Bird’s-Eye-View Endnotes

  1. The first of my morning fracking flights was out of this airport back in June, 2012 along with the other passenger on this flight Paul Feezel of Carroll Concerned Citizens and David Beach of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Green City Blue Lakes program.
  2. The Conservancy initially brought at least 30 bison of different ages and genders to Nachusa. The bison graze on approximately 1,500 acres of the prairie and the site currently supports more than 120 bison according to site volunteer naturalist Betty Higby.
  3. I put quotes around this word because in my travels across Ohio interviewing those in the path of these transmission pipelines it is clear that this is not the correct word because ‘proposals’ implies that these pipelines might not happen or are up for debate. Yet, neither could be further from the truth with most folks indicating that it was very clear very early in their interactions with FERC and the pipeline companies that there was never a chance that these pipelines were not going to happen with “imminent domain for private gain” being the common thread throughout my conversations.
  4. Tom is the author of a recently published book on the topic “When the Hills Are Gone.”

Supporting Documentation

Superior Silica Sand, LLC, Lundequam Picknell site, Barron County WI

New frac sand mining photos and videos are now available via FracTracker

Surface mining to obtain sand that is perfectly sized for use in the hydraulic fracturing process has been increasing in recent years. Over the summer, FracTracker had the opportunity to document a number of sand mining activities occurring in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin that supply frac sand to the oil and gas industry. Explore a selection of this imagery below:

Explore these and other frac sand mining photos and videos in our online album. The most recent imagery can be found at the bottom of the album. Additional videos are also available on this YouTube channel.

View All Albums

All of these frac sand photos, and more, can also be found on our Energy Imagery page, organized by topic and also location.

If you have photos or videos that you would like to contribute to this growing collection of publicly available information, just email us at info@fractracker.org, along with where and when the imagery was taken, and by whom.

Frac sand mining from the sky in Wisconsin

Fracking in Dairy Country

A dairy farmer in Wisconsin reflects upon a new industry in town: frac sand mining, how it is perceived, and where the industry is headed.

By Paul Jereczek
Jereczek Homestead Dairy, Dodge, Wisconsin

In 4th grade, every Wisconsin student learns about their state. Topics pertaining to Wisconsin’s economy, geography, and history along with ethnicity and traditions are introduced and explored. State facts and anecdotes are discussed and naturally memorized. The one that stood out to me the most was how Wisconsin became known as the “Badger State.”

The origin of the badger nickname is from mining. The 4th grade story I remember was that miners were too busy to build houses so they moved into abandoned mineshafts and/or dug their own burrows. These men became known as “badgers.” The 4th grade version of myself thought that was real impressive. I pictured strong, hard working men fiercely toiling away in the earth like mythical creatures, helping make Wisconsin what it is today.

It made for a great story.

Back to Reality

The reality and documentation of the times suggests something different. Most miners lived in cabins or other structures above ground. There most certainly were a few outliers on the fringe of mining society who burrowed their own holes or lived in abandoned underground mines, but the adult version of myself has a hard time imagining that the term used to describe such men – badgers – was used as a compliment.

Either way, the result is the same. Word spread and eventually Wisconsin became known as the Badger State. The state may be known worldwide for its cheese and agriculture, but there was mining in Wisconsin long before the first dairy cow. While the state was earning its nickname, mining was a prominent reason for the early success of the region.

Dairy Farming in WI

The 700 acre Jereczek Homestead Dairy in Dodge Township, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin first established in 1873 and now being operated by the the 6th generation of Jereczeks.

The 700 acre Jereczek Homestead Dairy in Dodge Township, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin first established in 1873 and now being operated by the 6th generation of Jereczeks.

Our farm is in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin – a driftless area – meaning the land was not covered by glaciers during the last ice age. The terrain is hilly and uneven, with tree-topped bluffs and hills overlooking valleys. The valleys, ranging from deep and narrow to wide and shallow, bump and flow into each other. Over the years, our farm has received its fair share of breaker rock, crushed rock, and gravel from the prevalent rock quarries. Sandstone deposits are huge and close to the surface. As a kid, there was a ledge in the cow pasture, where I hunted through chunks of sandstone for fossils.

As with everything else in the world, dairy farming continues to change. Most barns sit derelict and hold only memories of cows as they fade into the landscape. Small farms that clung to the valley walls have been sold to bigger operations, sit vacant, or have been built over. A lot of once prime farmland has been converted into houses with ridiculously large lawns. In 1990, Wisconsin had over 34,000 licensed dairy herds. Now there are just over 9,000.

We are the last dairy farm in our valley. Parallel to the trend, my childhood herd of 40 cows has turned to 200, which is about an average-sized herd. Margins are tighter than ever. Consistent help is hard to find. Milk prices are a terrible rollercoaster ride – it seems to take forever for them to go up, but when they fall, it’s fast and sickening. In the dairy business world, survival is a measure of success.

Frac Sand Mining Perceptions

Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines, Processing Facilities, and Related Operations

Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines, Processing Facilities, and Related Operations

The term frac sand is relatively new to me. I always assumed sand was sand and had given the word sand a negative connotation. Sand’s large particles don’t hold moisture or nutrients well, so sandy fields tend to perform poorly. But what if that sand has value for something else? What if there is a market for this sand much like a market for corn or soybeans?

Farmers tend to be resourceful. Every asset is scrutinized and employed to the fullest. Every acre is pushed. But what about what may lie beneath the soil? Sand mining has been going on in Wisconsin for well over a hundred years, but the recent surge in fracking has created an enormous demand for frac sand – and there are many people and companies set to take advantage of the boom.

Top U.S. Destinations for Wisconsin's Frac Sands Estimated from Superior Silica Sands' 2015 SEC 10Ks

Top U.S. Destinations for Wisconsin’s Frac Sands Estimated from Superior Silica Sands’ 2015 SEC 10Ks

Trempealeau County has zoning and planning ordinances to protect its industries and way of life. These aggressive ordinances allow more citizen input than other county’s ordinances. Public hearings are required, and orderly processes are enforced. With the economics involved with frac sand mining, citizens got educated very quickly. Much like abortion or immigration, frac sand has become a polarizing subject. Strong emotions built up by personal ideologies have pushed this topic to a boiling point. The for and against groups trade barbs without much convincing being done on either side. Frac sand mining editorials are common in local papers with those against appearing to be the most vocal and emotional.

New Player, New Approach

One such editorial detailed the approach a sand company took to obtaining a property. A local farmer had a sand mine company representative approach him with an oversized check written out to him for a sizable amount of money for his land. It was as though the sand rep was taking a page out of the Publishers Clearing House’s playbook. The farmer turned down the check. The sand rep left and returned a short time later with a significantly larger offer. The farmer was equally surprised and insulted. He found out later a few neighbors turned down similar proposals.

So what’s the deal with such a brazen approach? Intentions from this company may well have been good. Many people believed the sand mines were a win-win opportunity. Companies were selling hype – there was no way for anything but success. Extreme optimism. Sand mines were going to increase the tax base, fund schools and roads. Concerns were minimized, and residents were told what they wanted to hear. Such talk produced plenty of skeptics.

Environmental Costs of Frac Sand Mining

With both dairying and fracking, there is an environmental cost. Whether you milk 10, 100, or 1,000 cows – there are environmental pressures. With sand mining, the environmental effects are well documented. It is important, if not just practical, to measure these with the fiscal rewards. And where does this money go and who benefits the most? But, most importantly, who must deal with the consequences?

The risks of sand mines can be mitigated if proper regulations are taken seriously. With the extra scrutiny, a magnifying glass was placed over the sand mines, and what was found only proved the skeptics right. Trapping or pooling storm water seemed to be a learning process for sand mine companies; reported in 2012, every operating sand mine in Trempealeau County had storm water runoff violations. In 2014, over half of the sand mines in all of Wisconsin had violated environmental regulations imposed by the Department of Natural Resources. Add to this loss of surrounding property values, damage to roads, and a damper on quality of life – and you’ll create a substantial amount of public backlash.

Regulations Have Their Place

As was mentioned earlier, mining Is not new to the state. There are many multi-generational mining companies who have the experience, tradition, and financial network to abide by current standards and environmental regulations. Nobody likes to be told what to do. No industry is out there begging for more regulations. Often, the rules are in place to protect – not hinder – those that use environmentally safe and humane practices. Dairying has its own unique regulations – some are good, some not so much, and some downright stupid. Yet, overall it can be argued that these regulations protect the industry and the environment.

One heated topic in the dairy industry involves the sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk. It is illegal for any dairy in the state to sell raw milk. I have been drinking raw milk straight from the bulk tank since before I can remember. Our whole family did. Now, I still drink it and so do all my children from the age of a year and a half on up. None of us has ever had trouble with it. However, I am in complete agreement that the sale of raw milk should be illegal. All it takes is for one child to get terribly sick (which most certainly would happen) and for that kid lying on a hospital bed being blasted by every news network in the nation. These images create strong negative emotions that reverberate throughout society. The potential costs far outweigh the economic benefits from such a sale. Sure, some people are upset, but the greater good is maintained by taking away a risky practice.

The same principle works for mining. Rules and regulations get negative press and reaction, but who stands to lose the most from environmental catastrophes related to mining – the company in business 90-some years or the startup mining ventures trying to capture lightning in a bottle? Some companies have built years of trust and compatibility and support for their local communities. These are businesses that will remain after the sand rush has fizzled.

Booms and Busts, Ups and Downs

The frac sand industry is going through the same economic cycle as the dairy industry. The sand companies are getting better at what they do and increase their production capacity. Like milk, sand is a commodity. As the price of sand decreased, production increased to maintain profits. The dairy industry does the same thing, by expanding and improving efficiency to get more milk to catch those dollars slipping away. However, when the market is flush with milk or bombed with sand, they’re just doing more damage to themselves. This is a simplified take on the industry, as there are many global factors that come into play, but the overall pattern tends to remain. As the dairy industry can attest, this fluctuating cycle is not sustainable for all producers.

Primary and Secondary US Silica Sand Geologies and Existing Frac Sand Mines

Primary and Secondary US Silica Sand Geologies and Existing Frac Sand Mines

Worse yet for the sand industry, this cycle has occurred in hyper speed. At first, just the small mines cut production. Outcompeted by larger operations, production at smaller mines was no longer profitable. Soon, the larger mines cut production due to the weakening demand. Many mines in the permit or early production phases never got started. Unlike the dairy industry, there was no rollercoaster effect because prices have yet to return to prior levels. The bubble, it seems, had popped.

With any kind of new mine developed comes the environmental impacts. Yet, I find the fervent negative reaction to such practices directly related to the end result. Fracking. Fracking isn’t magic. They’re not just mixing water with this sand and forcing oil and gas out of the ground. Harmful chemicals are being added to the mix. Worst yet, the quantity and potency of such chemicals is kept secret, closely guarded from the public. Harmful chemicals are being legally pumped into the ground. All the short-term gains will have long-term consequences. This is where I believe a significant backlash for new mines comes from. The end result. Can you imagine what the public’s perception of dairy farms would be if milk was mixed with chemicals and pumped into the ground?

The Future of Dairy Farming in Wisconsin

The 2016 presidential election has breathed some life into the frac sand industry. The new president promises to cut regulations interfering with business, and thus far has kept those promises. The environment will not be a detriment to his goals. Sand companies are returning with ads in the local papers, looking for qualified applicants and offering great salaries. In contrast, the dairy industry is stuck in a rollercoaster spiral. Milk prices have been too low for far too long. The dairy dispersal continues with some very good cows being sold and very good dairymen and women calling it quits. Naturally, some land will be sold. To what end remains to be seen. But it is a safe bet, the frac sand mining ride has not ended.

Dunes, Great Lakes Barrens at Risk

World Class Dunes and Great Lakes Barrens at Risk at Ludington

By Dave Dister, Consulting Ecologist, Ludington, MI

One of the prime reasons I moved to the Ludington, Michigan area in 2008 was the aesthetic and biological diversity evident at Ludington State Park (LSP). As a field biologist nearing the end of his formal career, I was eager to conduct a study of the vascular plants within the 5,300-acre park. That study consumed six years of exploring all habitats and ecosystems, and documenting (by vouchers) the flora I encountered. Although the unfortunate presence of the Sargent Sand Company operation was obvious as it cut through the south end of the park, it was not until the fracking boom a few years ago that I took special notice as a residential neighbor.

US Frac Sands and Silica Geology Map

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Above is a dynamic map of silica sands and frac sand mines, drying facilities, and other related facilities. Zoom and click on the map to explore various aspects of frac sand mining infrastructure. Click here to view the map full screen along with its legend.

Expanding Sand Mining

That “sleepy” sand mining operation suddenly turned into a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation, with associated noise that irritated a very light-sleeping biologist. Hamlin Township officials were only partially effective in addressing residential impacts “after hours,” and had no interest in developing reasonable ordinances upon a commercial operation. Although increased noise and truck traffic were a tangible nuisance, only when a renewal of the company’s sand mining permit was announced did it become clear that biological resources within the 372-acre private in-holding were afforded virtually no protection at all. And the more research I did into the regulatory permitting process, the more incredulous the situation appeared.


Above – Photos of Sargent Sands frac sand mining operations taken by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance

1979 Environmental Impact Report

My expertise as a wetlands biologist and botanist were well suited to scrutinizing the 1979 Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which was a hastily-compiled poorly-researched 24-page document.

From my perspective, there was a poor level of protection afforded to the Federal and State Threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri). As far as is known, Sargent Sand has no records of relocating this plant in proposed or active mining cells in its 100-year history of mining, although the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) has known about plants on the property for more than 20 years. The MDNR and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have been complicit in not adequately protecting this species, which has had minimal research into the success (or not) of transplanting individual plants. Young plants appear to transplant well, but long-term studies are not available. Older plants are much less likely to survive transplanting, as they depend on numerous minute root hairs to absorb moisture in a xeric habitat, and removal from a dune would strip-off most such root hairs. It requires about seven years for these plants to mature, so reproductive rates are slow.

Yep, it’s a fact of life – plants simply are not nearly as charismatic as animals, and consequently are treated as “second-class organisms” in the world of environmental protection. Sadly, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) just renewed the sand mining permit that allows Sargent Sand to “self-monitor” for this threatened species, and to “move plants” encountered in areas proposed for development. Does anyone really think a mining company will give two hoots about a thistle plant?!

Great Lakes Barrens Ecosystem

The rarity and value of Great Lakes Barrens (GLB) was not addressed when the 1979 EIR was written, though such ecosystems are clearly visible on aerial photographs of Sargent Sand Company property and surrounding LSP. These natural communities are known to be imperiled ecosystems at both the state and global levels. The Michigan Natural Features Inventory classifies “Great Lakes Barrens” – that include jack pine stands with associated xeric-loving shrubs and forbs – as S2 natural communities:

Imperiled in the state because of rarity due to very restricted range, very few occurrences, steep declines, or other factors making it very vulnerable to extirpation from the state. – Michigan Natural Features Inventory

Globally, Great Lakes Barrens have a similar designation. Consequently, mitigation measures must be strengthened and avoidance of impacts considered. Any Restoration Plan of such habitats must include high quality GLB plants such as buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis), bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), ground juniper (Juniperus communis), sand cherry (Prunus pumila), sand-dune willow (Salix cordata), blueleaf willow (Salix myricoides), beach-heath (Hudsonia tomentosa), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), white camas (Anticlea elegans), and wild wormwood (Artemisia campestris), among others.

Again, unfortunately the MDNR has not enforced strong protections against the destruction of Great Lakes Barrens. The “reclamation” of destroyed dunes and jack pine barrens for a mere “one-year period at 80 percent vegetative cover” comes nowhere close to a viable mitigation plan, as trees and shrubs impacted in such areas take decades to recover.

Furthermore, other state-listed plants, such as ram’s head lady-slipper orchid (Cypripedium arietinum) are known to be adjacent to Sargent Sand property but are not legally protected as they are only “Special Concern” species. Lastly, the Lake Huron locust (Trimerotropsis huroniana) is a state Threatened insect known to occur within Ludington State Park, and suitable “sparsely vegetated dune” habitat is common within Sargent Sand’s property. If you thought rare plants get little respect, try to protect a threatened grasshopper!

Great Lakes Barrens often include seasonal wetlands that are protected under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1972, but which often lack surface waters much of the year. Not surprisingly, the 1979 EIR does not mention “wetlands” at all. At best, there is a comment that “There are three or four very small swamp areas on the property…”  However, a review of recent aerial photography indicates many Interdunal Wetlands remain within the northern half of Sargent Sand property. The largest of these appears to be at least 0.5 acre in size, and it is likely that several acres of such wetlands exist on the property.

Consequently, a formal Wetland Delineation is needed to determine the exact location and amount of Jurisdictional Wetlands on Sargent Sand property. Any impact to such wetlands requires mitigation measures that include avoidance, minimization, and/or wetland creation elsewhere within the watershed. Additionally, Interdunal Wetlands are ranked S2 Natural Communities by the State of Michigan, and have a rank of G2 globally. Both of these designations indicate these areas are “Imperiled,” so mitigation ratios should be high (e.g., 10:1 or 20:1).

Current Political Climate in Ludington

The current political leadership in Michigan, as well as the nation, has presented a formidable challenge for environmentalists and scientists. Additionally, the system certainly appears rigged when the agency – the MDEQ – that issues permits and permit renewals is also a lobbyist for the oil, gas, and minerals industry. Nevertheless, the battle to protect this natural heritage is a noble and vital one that will persist. As with every other sensitive and rare environmental resource, if no one scrutinizes the lax protection of our natural heritage, before you know it, it will be gone.

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

New Frac Sand Resources on FracTracker.org

We’ve added several new frac sand resources for visitors to our website this month, including a map of frac sand mines, as well as geolocated data you can download. Explore these resources using the map and links below:

Updated Frac Sand Mining Map


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

On the map above you can view silica sands/frac sand mines, drying facilities, and value-added facilities in North America. Click view map fullscreen to see the legend, an address search bar, and other tools available on our maps.

Additional data shown on this map include addresses and facility polygons. Wisconsin provides sand production data for 24 facilities, so that information has been included on this map. The remaining Wisconsin and other state facilities do not have production or acreage data associated with them. (Most states lack disclosure requirements for releasing this kind of data. Additionally the USGS maintains a confidentiality agreement with all firms, preventing us from obtaining production data.)

The sandstone/silica geology polygons (areas on the map) include a breakdown of how much land is currently made up of agriculture, urban/suburban, temperate deciduous forest, and conifer forests. At the present time we only have this information for the primary frac-sand-producing state: Wisconsin. We should have details for Ohio and Minnesota soon.

Data Downloads

Click on the links below to download various geolocated datasets (zipped shape files) related to the frac sand industry:

  1. SIC and/or NAICS related violations and inspections
  2. Resin Coating Facilities
  3. Silica Sand Mine Time Series polygon expansion over time (in Wisconsin, Illinois, Arkansas, Minnesota, and Missouri)
  4. Existing Silica Sand Mine Points
  5. Existing Silica Sand Mine Polygon land-use
  6. St. Peter and Sylvanian Surficial Sandstone Geologies
  7. Frac Sand Mine Proposals – inventory of frac sand mine proposals in LaSalle County, IL; Monroe County, IL; Arkansas; and Minnesota
  8. Western Michigan frac sand mines within or adjacent to sensitive dunes
  9. Mid or downstream frac sand industry participants (PDF) – detailed descriptions of 34 US and 4 Canadian firms
Chieftain Sands - Chetek WI Mine North

Frac Sand Photos Available on FracTracker.org

With the advent of hydraulic fracturing to increase production of oil and gas from tight geologic formations, such as shale, the demand for fracking sand (frac sand, or frack sand) has increased drastically in recent years. What does this process look like, you might ask. To help you understand this subsidiary of the oil and gas industry, we’ve compiled all of our frac sand photos into three albums on the topic.

Frac Sand Mining Photo Album

This album contains all of the photos we have amassed of frac sand mining and transportation operations – both from the ground and the sky.


Flyover Tours

We have also been fortunate enough to receive two flyover tours of frac sand mining taking place in 2013 and 2016 by LightHawk.


View All Albums

All of these frac sand photos, and more, can also be found on our Energy Imagery page, organized by topic and also location.

If you have photos or videos that you would like to contribute to this growing collection of publicly available information, just email us at info@fractracker.org, along with where and when the imagery was taken, and by whom.

Starved Rock State Park by Michelle McCray

How Frac Sand Mining is Altering an Economy Dependent on Starved Rock State Park, IL

An Ottawa, IL resident’s letter to U.S. Silica regarding how the firm’s “frac” sand mines adjacent to Starved Rock State Park will alter the local economy.

Starved Rock State Park

As is so often the case, we find that those things we have taken most for granted are usually the things we miss most when they are gone. The list of what our nation has lost to industrial and commercial concerns couldn’t possibly be compiled in a single article. The short-sighted habits of economic progress have often led to long-term loss and ecologic disaster. That is why it took a man like Abraham Lincoln, a man of long-term vision and wisdom, to sign into existence our first national park, preserving for antiquity what surely would have been lost to our American penchant for development and overuse.

With that in mind, I have always found it amazing how the gears of our own local and state governments have continually chosen the economic path of least resistance and allowed the areas surrounding Starved Rock State Park to be ravaged and destroyed for what is, ultimately, minimal gain. I am no expert but I suspect it could be argued that a full 1/3 of LaSalle County’s economic engine is funded by the simple existence of Starved Rock State Park. Beyond the 2 million plus visitors to the park each year, it cannot be forgotten that nearly every municipality in LaSalle County has directly or indirectly benefited from the countless number of businesses that prosper from the magnetism of the park’s tranquil canyons.

Photos by Michelle McCray of McCray Photography.

Preservation Not Development

As the 4-year battle with Mississippi Sand over development of the Ernat property has proved, there are many rational souls who truly acknowledge the importance of maintaining a healthy and productive park environment. With the recent sale of the Ernat property to U.S. Silica, we are again confronted with the prospect of irrational development of the eastern boundaries of Starved Rock State Park.

Given the gravity of these decisions, I would like to share a letter recently sent on behalf of many of those who have fought so hard and so long for preservation of that same eastern boundary. This letter was sent to Brian Shinn, CEO of U.S. Silica Holdings, INC. (SLCA) in Frederick, Maryland nearly a month ago, and we have yet to receive a response. In sharing this information on FracTracker’s website, I hope this letter will contribute to further discussion among our local representatives over a far more long-term vision of what LaSalle County wishes to be and what qualities, both environmental and economic, that it wishes to maintain and protect:

Letter to US Silica

Dear Mr. Shinn,

I am writing this letter on behalf of dozens of LaSalle County, Illinois residents who have, for the past several years, been intimately involved in the active pursuit of rational use and conservation of our local natural environment. As I am sure you are aware, the debate over use of the Ernat property as a functional sand mining operation has been a long and hard-fought battle. Years of litigation by the Sierra Club and other local environmental groups helped stall it’s development by Mississippi Sand, and have now led to the sale of the Ernat acreage to U.S. Silica. As irrational as the previous proposals were, the sale putting that acreage under your control has not lessened our concerns over the damaging use of that property as it relates to historic Highway 71 and the entire Starved Rock State Park area.

Obviously, sand mining operations have been a long-standing component of LaSalle County economics. Decades of mining under U.S. Silica supervision have not substantially reduced the quality of life for county residents or the natural environment as a whole. However, as can be specified by many local experts, the development and spoilage of the Ernat property will most certainly have longstanding and drastic impacts on both the ecology of Starved Rock State Park and the economic engine that it sustains. Starved Rock State Park attracts over 2 million visitors each year, with an estimated half million visitors using the Hwy. 71 entrance paralleling the Ernat farm as their main gateway into the park. The Ernat property’s river frontage has long been the tranquil eastern entry into the Illinois Canyon area, as well as an active nesting site for countless birds amidst bountiful wetlands and flat, open prairies. The Ernat property’s shared access to Horseshoe Creek has also made it essential to the entire Illinois Canyon ecosystem within the park. In short, any development of this property will most certainly have long-term negative impacts on both the economics and ecology of the Illinois River Basin.

In writing this letter, we are hoping that U.S. Silica, under your guidance, may consider the opportunity to preserve this indispensable parcel of land and examine ways in which U.S. Silica might make this land available as a gift or negotiated property to the state of Illinois. It would certainly be an important addition to the entire Starved Rock State Park area. I have included the signatures of many of our own local coalition. We hope you will consider the long-term impacts that this development would have to one of Illinois premier natural areas. Thank you.

Inspiring Action

I hope those who have signed this letter will be inspired to further action, and those who have not will reconsider their years of inaction. The natural heritage and local economies of our entire Illinois River Basin are depending on it.

Sincerely,

Paul Wheeler

Only when the last tree has died…
and the last river been poisoned…
and the last fish been caught…
will we realize we cannot eat money.

An old Cree Indian saying

Sand Mining Photos

For additional photos from Illinois, explore our online photo album.


Mr. Wheeler grew up in Oak Lawn, IL and now lives with his wife and daughter in the Ottawa, IL area and is a para-educator.

Feature image by Michelle McCray of McCray Photography.

Earth week in WI Feature Image

Earth Week in Wisconsin

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

Frac sand mining is a growing threat to the agricultural landscapes of the upper Midwest and a health risk to those who live near the mines. With a general slowdown in the oil and gas industry, sand mining may seem a lessening concern in the universe of extraction impacts, but a recent visit to Wisconsin during Earth Week suggested otherwise.

Frac Sand Mining Presentations

Dr. Auch presenting in Wisconsin on frac sand mining issues

Dr. Auch presenting in Wisconsin on frac sand mining issues

I joined my colleague, Dr. Ted Auch, on an informative cross-state tour that started in Milwaukee. We were presenters at the Great Lakes Water Conservation Conference where representatives from breweries around the region and across the country came together to discuss their most precious commodity: clean and abundant water. Extraction affects both the quantity and quality of water – and our insights opened many eyes. Businesses like microbreweries with a focus on sustainability and a strong environmental ethic recognize the urgency and benefit of the renewable energy transformation.

From Milwaukee, we headed west to Madison and the University of Wisconsin where Caitlin Williamson of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology organized the first of two forums entitled “Sifting the Future: The Ecological, Agricultural, and Health Effects of Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin.” We were joined by Kimberlee Wright of Midwest Environmental Advocates to address an engaged audience of 35 people from the campus and greater community. Thanks to Wisconsin Eye, a public affairs network, the entire program was videotaped.

Brook Lenker presenting at Sifting the Future event in Wisconsin

Brook Lenker presenting at Sifting the Future event in Wisconsin

A long drive to Eau Claire revealed rolling farmland, wooded hills, and prodigious wetlands home to waterfowl and the largest cranberry industry in the nation. At the Plaza Hotel, we met Cheryl Miller of the Save the Hills Alliance, the grantor enabling us to study the regional footprint of sand mining, and Pat Popple, advocate extraordinaire and our host for the second “Sifting the Future” event. The good folks at Public Lab were also in town to facilitate citizen monitoring of silica dust from the mining process, including a free workshop and training that weekend.

The evening program attracted 50 people from as far away as Iowa and Minnesota. Their interest in and knowledge of sand mining issues was impressive, and many were heavily involved in fighting local mines. Dr. Crispin Pierce spoke of his research about airborne particulates around frac sand operations, complementing both FracTracker presentations – mine emphasizing the broad array of environmental and public health perils related to oil and gas extraction and Ted’s examining the scale and scope of sand mining, demand for proppant, and the toll of the industry on agricultural productivity, forests and the carbon cycle.

Mining Photos

During the five day trip, sand mines were visited and documented, their incongruent and expanding presence marring the countryside. Some of them can be seen in this photo gallery:

View all frac sand mining photos >

Other Sights

On Earth Day, while driving east to return to Milwaukee, Sandhill cranes, a timeless symbol of the Wisconsin wild, poked the rich prairie soils searching for food. Joined by Autumn Sabo, a botanist and researcher who assisted our Wisconsin work, we detoured to the nearby Aldo Leopold Center visiting the simple shack that inspired Mr. Leopold to write Sand County Almanac. Considering the reason for my travel, the irony was thick. Ecological consciousness has come a long way, but more evangelism is sorely needed.

Aldo Leopold Center, WI

Aldo Leopold Center, Wisconsin

Events

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