By Neela Banerjee
CHIPPEWA COUNTY, Wis. -- Where County Highway A crests a knoll, Ken Schmitt pulls up to the edge of a farm and idles the car. Above a cornfield yellowed and brittle from a killing frost is a 100-foot hill with a wide section cut away, revealing bands of stone, clay and sand neat as a layer cake.
In time, 800 acres of farmland will be mined to feed an energy boom sweeping the United States.
No one is drilling for oil or gas amid the gently rolling farmland and wooded ridges of western Wisconsin. But the same battles over jobs, public health and the environment that have erupted in Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado as part of the latest energy wave now echo through the small towns of the upper Midwest.
Here the particular types of sand vital to the controversial production technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, lie just beneath the surface. Ground zero for industrial sand mining is western Wisconsin, in counties like Trempealeau, Buffalo and Chippewa. At least 60 industrial sand mines are functioning or in the permit process in the area, up from five in 2010.
The rapid expansion of sand mining through the quiet of western Wisconsin has raised fears among some residents and hope in others, often pitting neighbors against one another, just as fracking has done elsewhere.
To get to the sand, companies must blast and strip-mine fields and ridges. Their trucks ply the two-lane country roads nonstop to haul the sand to processing plants and railheads, where it is shipped to far-flung oil and gas fields. Residents worry that when strong winds lift the fine, washed sand from outdoor piles, the dust could lead to respiratory problems.
"People here say this is an issue of property rights, that they can do what they want with their land," said Schmitt, a cattle farmer and anti-mining activist from the town of Howard. "But individual rights end when you start affecting others' health and welfare."
Still, those who lease their land get royalties. Locals work at the mines and drive the trucks. When the companies build plants that wash, sift and dry the sand, they pay tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes. A trade-off is needed, mining's supporters say, if Wisconsin wants jobs and the country wants cheap energy.
"I liked the land the way it was before, but the country itself has to be more efficient one way or the other in the future," said Jeff Sikora, who leased 50 acres of his land to EOG Resources, a Houston-based oil, gas and mining company. "Everyone wants the country to be more self-sufficient, but no one wants the effects of it. We can't have our cake and eat it too."
High-volume hydraulic fracturing involves shooting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to crack shale formations and unlock oil and gas. The sand props open the fissures, and hydrocarbons flow through the porous sand up the well. The upper Midwest's round, hard sand makes it ideal for fracking, and a fracked well could use anywhere from 2 million to 5 million pounds of sand.
Sand formations sought by the oil and gas industry run under western Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois. Wisconsin was built on mining, mainly lead and iron, but sand mines were usually small and supplied local construction. Now, the sand mining boom has attracted oil and gas companies like EOG and Chesapeake Energy, local large landowners and entrepreneurs and hedge funds like Wexford Capital of Greenwich, Conn.
On a cold and overcast morning, Rich Budinger, regional manager of the Fairmount Minerals mine in Menomonie, drives to the base of a ridge being mined. Budinger points out the layer of sand exposed on the mined ridge, about 15 feet down from the top. He explains that a machine atop the ridge drills holes into it, which are then packed with explosives. The ridge is blasted once or twice a week, Budinger said, slicing off a section of the hill that falls into in a pile.
After a site has been mined, the area has to be reclaimed according to the landowner's directives. Near the entrance to the plant, a tract has been replanted with native grasses and pine, which the landowner hopes to turn into a Christmas tree farm.
The earth blasted from the ridge is taken to a facility on site where it is washed and sifted to extract the sand. Piles of washed sand stand at the site, fine as brown sugar. Sprinklers loom over the piles to keep down dust when the wind picks up.
"Dust blowing off the property is my main concern," Budinger said. "It's not uncommon to get 30- or 40-mph winds when one of those fronts blows in. We even stop mining on some of those days to control the dust."
Like residents of Pennsylvania small towns and Colorado suburbs, many Wisconsinites have urgent questions about risks the energy boom might bring to their air and water. Western Wisconsinites worry that airborne dust, or crystalline silica, as it is known, can lead to a potentially deadly respiratory ailment called silicosis. Research has shown the dangers crystalline silica poses on the job to miners and even to workers at fracking sites. But little is known about its effect on people who live near mine sites.
Critics want the air around mines monitored, but so far, only one air monitor has gone up in Chippewa County. In fact, air quality around mines is barely monitored, in part because of budget cuts at the state's Department of Natural Resources.
A team led by Crispin Hayes Pierce, a toxicologist and head of the environmental public health program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, found elevated concentrations of small particulates that included crystalline silica during air sampling at different times during the summer and fall of 2011 around the EOG processing plant in Chippewa Falls.
"It's like the difference between mainstream smoke and secondhand smoke," Pierce said. "These are dangerous substances, but what are the levels you're exposed to if you live near a sand mine or near a rail line where trains filled with sand pass five times a day?"
EOG officials were unavailable for comment.
Residents also worry about the quantity of water needed, especially to wash sand. Sand mines get groundwater from high-capacity wells. But the widespread cultivation of corn and soybeans in Wisconsin demands a lot of well water too. The county has asked state and federal geologists to study the effects of mining on local water supplies.
Rural Wisconsin largely lacks zoning ordinances, so a mine can be built next to homes or schools with little public notice. Some communities have imposed mining moratoriums in order to figure out their next steps. In others, all the promising land has been leased to mining companies that will be there for decades.
Many mining supporters dismiss the concerns. Lary Boese, a Chippewa County farmer, lives next to the mine on his property. The mine lets him hold on to his land and his dairy farm. Though he declined to specify how much he makes off his lease, he said it was more than $10,000 a month.
"I won't ever make that from dairy farming," Boese said at lunchtime at Hambone's Saloon in New Auburn. "I think this is about the haves and have-nots. Those who have sand on their property are for the mining and those who don't have sand are against mining."
About two hours to the southeast, in the town of Grant, a cranberry farmer courted by a mining company steps out on his weathered deck, on the nearly 200 acres where his family has lived for three generations. The land rises steeply from his small backyard into a shimmering wall of oak and some white pine. The mine would come up to the hilltop just beyond the trees. That was enough for him to turn down the company's sizable offer.
"When I was a kid, we spent all our time in those hills," said the farmer, who didn't want to be identified because of the controversy that has descended on his town over mining.
"We did everything there; it was our life." A lean, tan man nearing 60, the farmer looked at the hill, coughed and walked quickly back to the driveway.
He paced and wiped away tears. "Fighting this just seems so hopeless," he said.
"The companies just have so much money. They can just buy everybody. It seems like nothing can stop them. There's got to be better ways than this."