May 2012, Week 4


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Wed, 23 May 2012 22:28:22 -0400
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How Rural America Got Fracked

Ellen Cantarow 
May 21, 2012  

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The valleys will be filled... the mountains and hills made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of the mining he adds, "It's really put a boost to the area.
It's impressive the amount of money that's exchanging
hands." 84-year-old Letha Webster, who sold her land 100
miles south of Schindler's to another mining corporation,
Unimin, says that leaving her home of fifty-six years is
"just the price of progress."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Town-Busting Tactics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frac-Sand vs. Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen Cantarow May 21, 2012

Ellen Cantarow, musician and writer, reported from the West
Bank and Israel during the 1980s for the Village Voice,...


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